Mildred McKenzie represents an era coming to a close

The birthday girls. For much of their lives Garry MacLaren, Dorothy Treadwell, Jean Nolan, Kay French, Helen Cox and Mildred McKenzie have celebrated their birthdays together. A lunch party. Gifts. Laughter. Tears. Support. Anticipation. Reminisence. These women have woven a closeness in their relationship that spans marriage, children, careers, hopes. And now death.

Last week when Mildred McKenzie’s family bade her farewell, the birthday girls were losing one of their own. And so was her husband Arthur, her daughter Alison, her grandchildren and nieces and nephews.

Mildred Aileen Walls lived almost all of her life in the home in which she was born, a gracious semi detached house at the first crest of Mary St. It was the home of the Walls family, W.K. Walls, publisher of the Barrie Examiner. Barrie’s media history is long and colourful and the segment of time represented by the Walls ownership of the city’s only daily newspaper peaked when Kenneth Walls served as editor under his father and then publisher after his father’s death. And it was Mildred Walls who hovered over page proofs, pulled off forms of lead type, laid by linotype machines in the back shop on Bayfield St.

The paper went to press late morning; that meant that Mildred was in her cubbyhole, grease pencil in hand, correcting grammar and spelling, and insisting that type be re-set before final plates were wrapped around the print drums and the presses whirred into action.

These were the days before offset printing, and certainly long before desktop publishing. And the Walls family was the second last family-owned newspaper to exist in Barrie. When the family sold the newspaper to the Thomson chain in the 60’s, Kenneth remained as editor emeritus. Mildred continued to walk from her Mary St home each day to the Examiner offices where she did her utmost to ensure that readers were not insulted with typos and improper grammar.

But, Mildred didn’t begin her working life as a proofreader, though it’s clear she had some printer’s ink in her veins. She started teaching kindergarten, earning $500 a year. In 1945 she had a big decision to make. The school board had offered to raise her annual salary to $800. And Arthur McKenzie had proposed marriage. These were the days when a young woman couldn’t do both. Mildred chose Arthur and her work as a kindergarten teacher came to an abrupt end. Her life as a proofreader began. And until her only child was born in 1954 when Mildred was 42 the citizens of Barrie benefitted from her diligence.

Upon the death of her parents, Mildred and Arthur and Alison moved into the Walls home where they’ve been ever since.

While her daughter was growing up, Mildred’s efforts were focussed on the homefront and the Examiner was proofread by someone else. However, the final edition which was delivered to the now-McKenzie home was read with a critical eye the minute it was dropped off at Mary St.

Mildred’s life included volunteer work. She was an ethusiastic member of the IODE (Imperial Order of Daughters of the Empire) and served as past regent as well as spearheading an annual fundraising drive that centred on a raffled quilt. She also supported Collier St United Church as a member of the UCW (United Church Women). Her sports activities centred around badminton and both she and her brother won regional championships in their youths. She loved curling. She loved golf. And as she aged, those activities gave way to bridge, a competitiveness that Mildred relished.

When Mildred’s body gave up last week, her mind was as sharp, as alert as it had been all her life. Her mind had to deal with the physical challenges that osteoporosis presented. She had suffered a number of pressure fractures, refusing hospitalization until the lumbar fracture that occurred very recently. Her daughter Alison describes her mother’s anxiety about being at home and not going to hospital. But last week’s events included congenital heart failures and fluid on her lungs. It was time. Mildred McKenzie’s body just stopped.

So, what is left behind? A loving husband. A son-in-law and grandchildren. A daughter who’s enthusiastic about the generosity of her mother’s spirit. Though Mildred had only one child of her flesh, she had the capacity to create children of her heart with the many, many youngsters who found their way into the family home. Her concept of family was loosely bound, and Mildred welcomed young people as her own. “It was never just me; it was always my friends, too. She embraced the lives of people that her people loved,” said Alison.

Quite an epitaph.

Thanks, Mildred.