Except for her nursing training in Winnipeg, and the 12 months following her graduation that she worked in Nelson, B.C., Betty Coleman has lived in Brandon for all of her 88 years. She’s organized the Military Ball for decades, and was selected as the sponsor for the HMCS Brandon, a Kingston-class coastal defence vessel of the Canadian Forces named after the Wheat City. But after a lifetime here, Coleman will be moving to Victoria, where her daughter lives and where the ship’s home port is in nearby Esquimalt.
Your late husband, Jack, was really active in the military, right? And yet you remained here in Brandon the whole time.
Well, actually, he was overseas during the war, and then when he got back from overseas, we sort of hooked up. He was a customs broker and then he bought the business from his dad when he came back from overseas, and then he stayed in the reserves. He’d been in the reserves — he joined up when he was 16.
I’m guessing through his connection with the military, you kind of embraced the military life as well.
Well, it was one of those things — it’s easier to join them than fight them. (laughs) And a lot of our social life revolved around the military, and a lot of our friends. Between the military and Kinsmen, and they sort of overlapped, too — a lot of military were also Kinsmen — that was a big part of our lives.
You were a Kinette, then, probably?
Yes, I was a Kinette. And Jack was president of Kinsmen and I was president of Kinettes.
Now this Nov. 2 will be the 65th annual Military Ball in Brandon. Were you organizing it right from the get-go?
No. But from the very beginning, the junior officers had a fair amount to do with it. Then Jack kind of took on quite a bit invitation-wise, and I sort of then got involved along with him. And we worked on it together.
He passed away in 1987, and they said, ‘What are we going to do?’ And I said, ‘Well, if it’s OK, I know what all has to be done,’ so I just carried on.
What is it about the military life that appeals to you?
It’s hard to say exactly. The involvement with the military has been really great. We met a lot of super people. And socially, of course, back then, say on a Saturday night if you went to the show or something, if you wanted to have a drink, the Mess was really the only place. Because there weren’t any lounges — it was all beer parlours. So that played a big part in our social life.
And it’s always been the 26th Field Regiment, right?
Yes. 26th Field. And as I say, the back and forth with Shilo. Because Jack was a very social person, so he would meet people through the exercises and stuff, and go to a Mess dinner and meet a new guy and so we’d have them come for dinner. So we got to know a lot of them.
So it became very much a way of life.
Yes. And it was good.
Did you continue your nursing career once you were married? I guess it kind of wasn’t done back in those days.
That’s right. When you married — and at that time there wasn’t any shortage of nurses — so as a married woman, you weren’t to take a job from a single person. It was sort of an unwritten rule — nothing etched in stone or anything, but once you married, you stayed home and had a family.
And you have two kids?
Yes — a daughter and a son. My son, Bob, lives in Lexington, Kentucky, and my daughter Susan lives in Victoria.
Now before we get into that, let’s talk about the HMCS Brandon. You launched it in …
1998. And I was chosen by a committee.
And you’re called the ship’s sponsor?
Yes — that’s what I am. And I’m sort of the liaison between the ship and the city. And that will continue when I move. Once you’re the sponsor, that’s it — it’s for life. I always said, ‘Who goes first — the ship or me?’ because there can’t be another sponsor.
Yes. I’m the sponsor because I launched it. And there are two of the sponsors on the west coast who have died. And so their ships don’t have sponsors — that’s it.
So what happens then?
Well, hopefully you have a committee in the city that will pick up and organize things. Like here, we have the Friends of the HMCS Brandon committee.
But they don’t name another sponsor.
Isn’t that interesting! I had no idea. So you’ll continue to liaise with Brandon, then?
Yes. And that’ll work out with emails and stuff. And telephone calls.
Now I’m not asking you to be a spokesperson for all people of a certain age, but often folks think, ‘Oh my goodness — you’ve spent your whole life here, and to pick up and leave everything seems a drastic move.’ But you’ve had a couple of health scares lately, and you said it’s less worry for Susan if you’re nearby rather than halfway across the country.
And less worry for Bob, too, because he knows that Sue’s handy. And that’s the big thing, really.
It’s going to be a wrench for sure. But I’ve been going to Victoria for 23 years, spending two months in the winter, so I’ve made quite a few friends. And you see, there again, the military — I’m actually an associate member of the Officers’ Mess in Victoria for 5th Field, and I’m on their list for things there. When I’ve been there in the winter, I’m at dinners and that sort of thing.
And then I’ve met quite a few through the ship, and it’s been kind of nice. The crews change, but a lot of the ones, like the captains who are still in Victoria, we keep in touch when I go out, and get together. And it’s been really great. I’ve had a super time.
So you’re better prepared, in a sense, than some people who just decide to go where their kids and their grandkids are, and then realize what they’ve left behind because their social life is here.
And you’ve already established social connections there, so it’ll be a bit of an easier transition. But I’m sure it’ll be tough after 88 years here.
Yes. Oh gosh! I’ll miss friends and a lot of the connections. And the fact that when I go grocery shopping I usually always meet somebody I know. So it’s going to be different. I belong to St. Matthew’s (Cathedral) — I’ve always belonged there — but when I’ve been out to Victoria, I’ve always gone to the Cathedral there. So I’ve made a few friends and connections there. So it’s going to work. It’s going to be an adventure.
I think you’re really being so sensible. Because so many people go in blind, for lack of a better word. So if you had advice to give, it would be that people investigate or explore or become familiar with the communities they may be moving to a few years before the move actually happens?
Yes — I could see you could move out there and be quite lonely. And I think it’s a little harder in this day and age because for one thing, people are working and busy and you have your people who are established so then you have to kind of break into their circles. Like I’m going into assisted living — I have a two-bedroom apartment and a full kitchen and I can have my lunch and dinner when I want to. But I think that’s going to be good because right there, I’m going to have people who I get to meet.
But after having had your own home for all these years, is that going to be a little difficult?
It’s going to be. I’ve got this great hunk of property, so I’m kind of private and I don’t have anybody right on my tail sort of deal, so yes — it’s going to be a bit of a switch.
But I guess at 88, you’ve done so well to be on your own for SO long …
That’s right. So it’ll be good.
Well, I think your positive attitude probably helps, too.
I hope so. I was looking at actually moving out of the house and going into a condo. And then I thought, if I’m going to make a move — and with the health bit, that really made me stop and think — maybe move out there now. And the thing is, too, I’ve always felt that whatever I do, I want it to be MY decision — that I’m not going to kind of be hauled kicking and screaming out the door and having somebody else say, ‘This is what we’re doing.’ This way makes it easier on everybody.
So this November 2nd will be your last Military Ball here, then?
Everybody’s been asking that, and I said, ‘Well, you know, I could come back and see if you’re doing it right! Make sure it’s all under control.’ (laughs)
After all this time here, what will you miss the most?
Not the winter! I guess mainly it’ll be the friends and the connections. I’ve belonged to the hospital auxiliary, I’ve been on the board of Hobb’s Manor. Over the years I’ve trained the candy stripers and I’ve been a 4-H leader and a Guide Commissioner and a Brownie leader. But those things are winding down anyway, so even if I stay here, there are a lot of changes. But it’s going to be the friends and the familiarity with the city.
And some of the things — like in the summer, getting in the car and taking a drive to Virden or down to Boissevain or Minnedosa — just having a little look around, a little day out. That’s going to be a little different.
And what are you looking most forward to about Victoria?
Well you know, it’s going to be fun to have a few more times with my daughter. Now she works, but she has an office downtown — she’s in the health field — so there’ll be days we can meet for lunch. And she’s quite involved with the music scene out there, so there’ll be things that we can do — go to the symphony and go to plays and things like that, and we’ll be able to do them together. Not to mention the weather and the flowers!
And then the connection with the ship and maybe I can go on a day sail with them, which I’ve done before. I’ve actually stayed overnight with them, which has been fun.
Any sort of a farewell comment to Brandon?
Well, I’m certainly going to miss Brandon — it’s been my home for such a long time. But I’m looking at it as an adventure and another little section in my life. And let’s face it — I can always come back for visits. It’s not as though I’m going to another continent or anything. And I’ve got friends who’ve got an extra bedroom so I’m sure I’ll be able to find a place to lay my head.
The Women of the War Years Committee of the Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum at the Brandon airport invites everyone who wishes to say ‘Bon Voyage, Betty!’ to tea at the Canteen at the Museum from 24 p.m. this afternoon, Saturday, Oct. 12. There will be a guest book and a silver collection in lieu of greeting cards. For more information call Judith at 204-727-7156.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition October 12, 2013