In Memorium: May Brown

All my life my mother had this group of friends. They met at summer school in 1940, I believe, 13 young teachers living on one floor of the dorms at UVic. They never told their offspring any of the stories, but I gather they had a pretty good time. Such a good time, they decided to keep in touch. Which they did, for the next 75 years or so. They called themselves simply, “The Thirteen,” and they formed a little community that stretched all over the province and as far away as California.  

They managed this by means of the Round Robin, which was the 1940s equivalent of Facebook, I guess. Every eight or ten months my mother would get a fat envelope in the mail. She would open it, read everything, take out her old letter, put in an update and pass it on. It seemed to work. 

One of the women was an especially good friend of my mother’s. Both widowed young, they travelled together in their retirement. “Maisie” was always my favourite. Kind, intelligent, forthright. We all knew that she was on the Vancouver Parks Board, and were very proud of her for that. Then she moved up to City Council, and we were even more proud, but it seemed difficult to match the pleasant, calm person we knew with the political scene. Then she ran for mayor but didn’t win, and we were disappointed, but not surprised. We had always considered her as rather an underdog, because she wasn’t really the political type. Silly us.

Of course, besides her political career she taught in the Physical Education Department at UBC, ran a summer camp for boys in the Cariboo, and accomplished numerous other duties in the community. “Professor” or “camp leader” suited her so much better than “politician.”  

We knew she was a great supporter of the Liberal party, and I admit it was very handy, once I started blogging on political subjects, to have one person I could call up and depend on for intelligent, knowledgeable analysis of what was going on. 

She died in March, and we were sad, but also proud, because she had lived such a full life for 99 years, and accomplished so much. 

And then I went to her memorial last Wednesday. What an eye-opener.

VanDusen Gardens donated two rooms in their facility in her honour; both were filled to overflowing. I recognized one sitting MP and one former Premier in the crowd. Who knows how many other luminaries were present. 

And when the speakers started listing her accomplishments — BC Sports Hall of Fame, Order of BC, Order of Canada, chairwoman of this board, chief fund raiser on that one — I began to figure it out. 

It turns out that this quiet little woman was one of the most influential figures in Vancouver politics for decades. Her watchword was “service.” She was renowned for making up a committee and getting things done. You’re having a baby with no mother to support you? We’ll form a committee. I want to throw an 80thbirthday party for myself? I’ll form a committee. She led by example, throwing herself into projects she believed in, and everyone else trailed along, trying desperately to keep up. 

And yet in all the time I knew her, she was never rattled, never in a hurry. When you talked with her, you had her full attention, and you knew that she cared. She rarely spoke about herself, preferring to listen to others. There was no hype, no “I’m an important person,” no ego. Meeting her at a tea party, your last guess would have been that she was a politician. 

May was the last survivor of the Thirteen, and her death means the end of an era in many ways. The world will be a poorer place for her passing.  But her main legacy is the point she proved by the way she lived her life. If more of our politicians were like May Brown, our country would be much better off. 

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