Search Publication Extracts

Search transcribed extracts:

Publication: Globe and Mail, The add link
Issue: 19 May 2008, page R11
Web Link: link


Philanthropic centenarian was the 'first lady of Edmonton'

Married at 79 to one of Alberta's richest men, they gave away millions at a time when many of their elderly Edmonton peers were content to settle into retirement homes


Special to The Globe and Mail

May 19, 2008

CALGARY -- Harriet Winspear was the widow of Alberta industrialist and philanthropist Francis Winspear. They married in 1980, when he was 80 and she was 79. Without pause, they went on to create the biggest cultural turnaround Edmonton has ever seen, proving that aged love is like aged scotch, only more intoxicating.

"She was just go, go, go," said Debbie Allan. "Absolutely, it was a love that offered so many other things. It put a sparkle back into my grandfather's eye."

Her secret to longevity was ensuring that every day was filled with extraordinary people and - after 5 p.m. - a shot of single-malt Scotch.

Harriet Winspear was born in Winnipeg to parents Caroline and Hubert Haines. In 1910, the year she turned 6, she watched Halley's Comet from the wheat fields outside Lloydminster, Alta. For four days and nights, the enormous tail of cosmic dust lit up the sky to become an enduring memory, perhaps partly because she was given permission to stay up past her regular bedtime.

Later, the family moved to British Columbia and young Harriet attended Crofton House, a private school in Vancouver. She graduated in 1922, and enrolled at the University of British Columbia, then located at the temporary "Fairview shacks" near Vancouver General Hospital. Her arrival was timely. That same year, she joined a huge march to outlying Point Grey to protest overcrowded conditions. The school had long been promised that a new facility would be built there, but the First World War intervened and nothing had been done. Along with 1,200 other students, she helped spell out UBC in giant letters in the forests overlooking the Strait of Georgia. They were claiming land for a new campus. Her signature, along with 56,000 others, helped prompt the university to open there in 1925.

In 1934, she married Harry Snowball and together they had two sons, John and Geoffrey. A gifted cook, she ran cafeteria at Vivian Engine Works, a Vancouver manufacturer of marine diesel engines that was later taken over by Canadian Car and Foundry. During the Second World War, the work force increased dramatically and the company dining hall fed 350 men and women every day.

The Snowballs were 60-year-old empty nesters when they were transferred from Vancouver to Edmonton in 1961. There, they struck up what became a 20-year friendship with Francis Winspear and his first wife, Bess.

Mr. Winspear, an immigrant from England who had begun his career as a bank clerk, became an accountant and went on to control 40 companies and serve as president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. He had just built a luxury, river-valley apartment building called Valleyview Manor, and needed a manager. Harriet took the job and the Snowballs moved in five floors below the Winspear penthouse. Over the years, the two couples drew closer together and by the 1970s, the Snowballs were on the Winspear Foundation's board.

In 1976, Harry Snowball died, followed by Bess Winspear three years later.

The relationship between Harriet and Francis continued unchanged for a while, then took a serious turn in 1980. She cooked him fried liver and onions - a favourite dish - and he popped the question.

Their wedding was a quiet, personal affair, after which she moved up to the penthouse. Their privacy didn't last long. It was soon learned that Mr. Winspear intended to donate much of his fortune and they were skyrocketed into the public eye. Helping him give it away would be his new wife, Harriet.

It was a job she accepted with relish. "She did not have her own artist gifts," said Kathryn Merrett, author of the biography Harriet. "Her gift was the way she made others great."

For the next decade, the couple operated the Winspear Foundation and led a busy, vibrant lifestyle at an age when many of their peers were settling into nursing homes. As Winspear-owned firms were sold off, much of the earnings were poured into the fund. Some observers estimated the couple's net worth at around $100-million, a figure Mr. Winspear said was far too high because most of the money had been given away. Contributions included $6-million to the University of Alberta, large gifts to the arts scene, money for children's camps and countless other donations.

For Mrs. Winspear, life became a heady adventure that was dramatized, perhaps, by the reappearance of Halley's Comet in 1986. Seventy-six years after it sailed across the Manitoba skies of her childhood, she watched it from the balcony of her Edmonton penthouse. She was one of the few people to see the comet twice in a lifetime.

Meanwhile, the giving continued apace. Mr. Winspear, ever the accountant, was fully aware of their responsibilities. "Giving money requires even more prescience, more imagination, more executive skill than making it," he once said.

His wife saw it as another opportunity to enjoy life.

"Harriet was part of why Francis kept interested and active," said Preston Manning, former leader of the now defunct Reform Party and now president of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy. "They were elderly, but she'd say let's not just write the cheque - let's be there to show our support."

They also made political contributions, he said. "In an unabashed pro-West stand in 1987, the Winspears put $50,000 on the table to make the first Reform Party convention possible when the establishment was skeptical."

It was about then that Mrs. Winspear first met Deborah Grey, an educator who won an Alberta by-election two years later and became Reform's first member of Parliament. "She was a legend," said Ms. Grey. "She was the first lady of Edmonton and the public face of the Winspear Centre."

Properly called The Francis Winspear Centre for Music, it began in 1994 with a request for $600,000. The idea was to help kick-start a $45-million campaign to build a modern, quality concert hall in Edmonton. In the end, their contribution rose to $6-million and ensured the opening of a world-class performing centre during the summer of 1997. At the time, it was the largest single private donation to a performing arts facility in Canadian history.

"They got it right, with both outstanding acoustics and great spaces for people," said Bob McPhee, then president and CEO of the Symphony and the Francis Winspear Centre for Music.

The opening of the hall proved to be a bittersweet moment for Mrs. Winspear, then 93. On the big night, she appeared radiantly dressed in a sequined haute couture gown designed by Roy Allen, the Queen Mother's clothing designer. It had been commissioned by her husband, but he never saw the dress or the completed hall - he died of complications from a stroke, just months before the opening.

After that, the public face of the Winspear Foundation became "just Harriet."

"When she had a chance, she became a star," said friend Gary McPherson, an advocate for disabled rights and a 2006 candidate for the leadership of the provincial Conservative party.

"Harriet loved and was fabulous at being 'Mrs. Winspear,' " said biographer Kathryn Merrett. "She was a straight talker in her gravelly voice, full of questions and liked to be known. She'd tour senior homes ... to tell them there was a lot left to do, and that she was older than them and doing it."

When asked if Mrs. Winspear was loved, Ms. Merrett laughed, "I don't think she gave people a choice!"

It seemed as if nothing slowed her down. That same year, she arrived at a Reform Party rally on a motorbike. The machine belonged to Ms. Grey, a well-known motorcycle enthusiast. As the chrome heat shields and tailpipes of her Honda Gold Wing bike became visible, the crowds saw that the passenger in the Chanel raincoat was none other than Edmonton's famous senior. "Harriet was game to do anything - even have her first motorcycle ride at 93 years old," said Ms. Grey. "I am a long-term fan of her sense of fun and celebration."

The fun kept coming. For her 99th birthday - a day Edmonton mayor Bill Smith proclaimed Harriet Winspear Day - she wore a birthday gift, a "99" Oilers jersey signed by Wayne Gretzky that hung down to her knees. At 100, she shared in the celebrations for Edmonton's centenary, serving as honorary chairperson and parade marshal. She attended 10 centennial parties, went to three parties in her honour and hosted a splash at the University of Alberta faculty club.

Mrs. Winspear lived on her own until 2004, when she finally agreed to hire a companion.

"She'd be dressed to a T by 8 sharp, hair done at Max's, lilies from Meryl's, have strawberry flambé at the Hotel MacDonald, shop at both Holts and Zellers, read Peter Rabbit to school kids, be at her regular table at the university faculty club with a different friend every night for dinner - every day till she was 103," said Rhonda Bailey, her caregiver. "The caregiver ad should have read: 'Wanted, caregiver who wants to shop all day and party all night.' "

Ms. Winspear continued her busy schedule almost until the end. She received a thunderous applause when she appeared at the Edmonton Symphony performance at last year's 10th anniversary of the Winspear Centre, and was treated like royalty whenever she attended the Edmonton Opera - and not because of the homemade fudge brownies she always took backstage. In the case of the opera, she had saved the day when the organization teetered on bankruptcy, and this year, she faithfully attended productions of La Fanciulla Del West and HMS Pinafore.

"She looked innocent but asked probing questions," said Edmonton Opera general manager Mary Phillips Rickey, who also confided Mrs. Winspear's privileges. "Harriet was the only person who ever had Scotch delivered to her seat."


Harriet Gertrude Snowball Winspear was born Aug. 18, 1904, in Winnipeg. She died March 13, 2008, in Edmonton. She was 103. She was predeceased by husband Harry Snowball, husband Francis Winspear and son Geoffrey Snowball. She is survived by son John Snowball, and by numerous grandchildren and great grandchildren.