Mary Beales at the celebration of her 100th birthday held at the Semiahmoo Fish and Game Club on Sept. 4. (Contributed photo)

Local history still alive in centenarian’s memories

Mary Beales recalls life with husband Sid, and White Rock as it was in `40s

She’s very much part of White Rock’s history – and still a vibrant, active member of the community today.

That’s why it’s no surprise that close to 150 well-wishers – including some four generations of family members – were there to sing Happy Birthday when Mary Beales celebrated her 100th at Semiahmoo Fish and Game Club on Sept. 4.

Now a South Surrey resident, Beales – who marked her actual birthday on Sept. 11 – has deep roots in the community going back to early 1942, when her late husband Sid was appointed Great Northern (now BNSF) telegrapher at White Rock station.

Though Sid passed in 2001, just before his 85th birthday, his old desk and working equipment are preserved as part of the permanent station office display at the White Rock Museum and Archives.

But when Peace Arch News visited with Beales and daughters Maureen Beales (former Sea Festival organizer) and Brenda Michie (former owner of the 1321 Dance studio) recently, it underlined just how connected the centenarian was – and is – with her community in her own right.

A longtime member and supporter of the Victorian Order of Nurses in the community (“I think you held just about every executive position with them at one time or another,” Maureen chuckled), she is also a long-time supporter and honorary member of the Fish and Game Club.

Other key elements of White Rock life she has been involved in include the Peace Arch Hospital Auxiliary and the Superfluity Store, the White Rock Players Club and the Sea Festival – going back to the infancy of each.

Still possessing a razor-sharp memory, Beales has remained young in outlook by taking a lively interest in the community and playing a leading role in its social life, even though she notes that many of her contemporaries have passed.

Her memories – borne out by the many evocative historic photographs her family brought together on memory boards for the celebrations – paint a compelling picture of the fun-loving, and admittedly shopping-enthusiastic young woman she used to be.

Born Mary Wilson in London, Ont., she was the daughter of an English war bride and a sergeant in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, not long returned after service in the First World War.

During that war, Beales recalled, her mother had worked at the popular Swan & Edgar department store in London’s Piccadilly Circus. While she had lost a sweetheart on the battlefields, she had not been short of invitations to participate in the whirl of social life in London.

Her new life in Canada must have been a shock, Beales said, particularly since her new husband – Ontario-born and an entrepreneur in hotels and restaurants for most of his life – had decided to take a flyer on farming in Northern Saskatchewan.

“My mother brought over 12 pairs of white kid gloves with her from England. She was used to going to all the restaurants and theatres and dances in London – she didn’t know what she was coming to!” Beales said.

Fortunately, the homesteading venture lasted only a year and Beales (the eldest of four sisters) spent most of her early years growing up in more urban areas of Saskatchewan while her father became a barber and later sold Imperial Oil.

After the Depression hit in 1930, the Wilsons moved to Emerson, Man., just across the border from both Minnesota and North Dakota, where her dad bought a hotel. In spite of the economy, the hotel did well – it had a licensed bar that appealed to thirsty American customers still under the constraints of Prohibition.

Her parents’ musical talents also came in useful in entertaining the hotel guests, she recalled – “my father had a beautiful tenor voice and my mother played the piano to accompany him.”

Beales recalled that while they lived a very quiet life at the hotel (“we kept separate from the guests”), there was some excitement on the horizon – at school, she met Sid, who, it seems, soon developed a crush on the eldest Wilson girl.

“We met the year I was 12 and he was 15,” she remembered.

“Two or three boys had the paper route that went to the hotel, but Sid bribed them so he could deliver the paper himself. We hardly said two words to each other then, but he always knocked and handed me the paper.”

The shyness evaporated over the next couple of years, as the teens spent more and more time keeping company, she recalled.

“And then President Roosevelt down in the States went and repealed Prohibition.”

Without the same bar profits, business declined and by 1935 her father had sold the hotel and moved on – and she experienced all the pangs of an enforced separation from Sid.

“I cried all the way to Winnipeg because I was leaving my friend,” she recalled.

The family wound up in Dunderave, Sask., where her father went in on the hotel owned by her uncle.

“There was a Canadian Army camp there and that was good for the hotel business.” she said.

When her Dad developed rheumatism, he followed the suggestion of a doctor to seek a more moderate climate, and the family moved to Vancouver, which is where she graduated, from King George High School, in 1937.

Beales had wanted to become a trainee nurse at St. Paul’s Hospital, she said, but by that time her father was following another business opportunity – leasing an apartment building in Seattle – and persuaded her that she needed to stay with the family.

She’d been writing to Sid ever since she left Emerson, and he made a long trek out to the West Coast to see her when she was back in Vancouver visiting with friends.

They almost missed each other, she recalled, but for a chance meeting on the street.

“I’d happened to get on a bus and started to do some knitting – and suddenly there he was outside the window,” she remembered.

“I got all excited and started running to get off the bus and dropped the knitting, and the spool of wool ran away down the aisle. Everybody on the bus was helping me pick up the knitting and all the wool.”

Reunited with Sid, they visited down in Seattle for a while before he had to return to Emerson and a job setting type and writing for the town newspaper.

After a year in Seattle, her father got his papers to stay in the U.S. and moved the family to California, where he bought Clark’s Cafe in Burbank, near Hollywood – not far from busy Warner Brothers studios and the bustling Lockheed Aircraft plant.

It was a period in which the U.S. was emerging from the Depression and business was booming in such glamorous surroundings, Beales remembered.

But Sid and Mary were determined to begin a life of their own together – and although Sid visited California, he didn’t care to settle there, opting instead for a job opportunity with the Great Northern Railway.

After a period of training in Concrete, Wash., he was assigned to New Westminster – and in December of 1941, shortly after Japan attacked Pearl Harbour and the U.S. was plunged into the Second World War, he and Mary eloped and were married in Blaine.

When White Rock station agent Lorne Pravitz took a liking to him, Sid was reassigned here – and it was also advantageous that, as a Canadian citizen working for the U.S. company, he could sign documents on shipments crossing the border during wartime.

After three months of living at a hotel in New Westminster, Mary finally moved down to White Rock. She remembered that her arrival there created something of a stir among the local ladies.

“Dad was a very good-looking man and they all wanted to know who this woman was who’d married him,” Maureen laughed.

Although Canada had been at war since 1939, there were few impacts on life in White Rock, Beales remembered – aside from the town being plunged into complete darkness at night because of black-out restrictions on the west coast.

Sid, by then a few years older than the average age of men in the military services, was not eligible because of the “essential” nature of his work, Beales said.

“My husband was ‘frozen’ to his job,” she said.

“A lot of war supplies produced in the States went through here before going on to the East Coast. It was fortunate for me and him, but he felt bad about it because a lot of close friends were in the service.”

But she remembers the ’40s, above all, as a happy time of camaraderie among White Rock residents.

“We had a wonderful time – every organization would have a dance in the winter months.”

Maureen came along in 1943, followed by Brenda in 1947 – and in the post-war years White Rock was “better than ever,” Beales remembered.

“More people moved out here and we made wonderful friends,” she added, noting that Tara Supper Club on the former King George Highway was one of the hubs of social activity.

Maureen and Brenda remember an idyllic 1950s childhood including the family getting their first television set around 1954.

“We had a wonderful life here growing up,” said Brenda.

“There are a lot of pictures of us as a family on the beach, and when we participated in the White Rock Swimming Club,” Maureen remembered.

In 1954, Beales recalled, she realized that her shopping trips to New Westminster with her friend Marge Pravitz were making a dent in the family budget. She got a job at Mosier’s Drug Store – starting a career in retail that continued until she was 70.

Sid, who became station agent in 1959, retired in the mid 70s after 35 years with the railway, and the couple moved down to Blaine, but still retained the same social circle, often enjoying champagne brunches on weekends.

“We kept on coming up almost every day for 40 years to see all our friends,” Beales said.

Even today, she remains active and still gets out to shop, she said.

“When I’m uptown people will say to me ‘are you alone?’” she said.

She’s convinced that her longevity and good health was inherited from her parents, she said.

But Maureen is sure that it has a lot to do with her upbeat personality, and having been part of a close-knit community at an exciting time in its history.

“Mom’s a real people person,” Maureen said. “There wasn’t a lot of stress in her life.”

 

Contributed photo Sid and Mary Beales (nee Wilson) as they appeared c. 1938 – outside the apartment building her father leased in Seattle.

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