In July, when Taryn Coo walks down the aisle to marry her sweetheart, she will spend time with family and friends as they launch her on her journey. With her in spirit will be her grandmother, Sheila Coo. Tucked under Sheila’s bed, all wrapped up and ready, card included, is Taryn’s wedding gift. Because Sheila wanted to be ready.
Sheila’s daughter Katherine Zuercher felt her mom was ready earlier this month when she had her second heart attack in as many weeks, and chose not to call 911. “She called us and we came over but she went while we were with her,” says Katherine.
Sheila’s was a life well lived. At 83, she could look back on a lifetime of professional work as a writer, started during World War Two, continued uniquely as her babies came along, and culminating with a articles produced until early in this century.
To a lot of her neighbours, Sheila was likely the ‘older lady’ who still took her car out during daytime hours, who managed her home by calling for help when needed. But behind the front door is a lifetime of interesting decisions.
When her parents refused to sign permission slips to allow her to enlist during World War Two, Sheila Stringer chose to finish school at Mimico High School and at age 17 she went to work for the Advertiser newspaper, in the Lakeshore area of Toronto. She covered every kind of story imaginable: local politics, education issues, the war effort on a local level.
One of her writing assignments was to interview returning servicemen. In this capacity Sheila renewed acquaintance with a former high school mate, Laurence Coo. They married in 1947. In those days women stopped their jobs and stayed home to raise their families. Sheila carved a new role for herself… mom and writer at home. She wrote a series of articles, for emerging magazines and for the Star Weekly. Katharine remembers her switching to a pseudonym, Katie O’Hara, after a backlash against her children at school after the publication of “I won’t be a workiing wife.” It was a spoof, of course, because there she was, writing and filing stories. But neighbours didn’t get it and the kids got taunted.
That was Sheila, to the core. Protect her kids but keep on doing what came naturally to her. As one, two, three, four children arrived, Sheila kept writing from home. It was the 1950’s, immortalized by June Cleaver’s dresses and pearls, on early TV in Leave it To Beaver.
In the 1960’s Sheila went ‘back’ to work as editor of the Etobicoke Press. She was called ‘editor’ but she did everything… photographs, articles, page design, re-writes, classifieds. At the end of that decade she worked on a brand new printing format called ‘offset printing.’ It was life changing for print production and relegated old lead slugs and steel plates to the backroom forever.
It was Sheila’s love of politics and education that took in in the 1970’s to Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association where she put out a magazine publication called The Reporter. She also wrote about pertinent issues for conferences and political meetiings. It was a full time job with four busy kids who were well on their way to growing up.
When the family moved to Barrie in 1974, Sheila continued her full time job commuting to Toronto by bus three days a week, and completing the rest of her work at home. She finished that job in 1978 she continued to write articles for other publications as well.
She wrote about education in Ireland. She featured Aileen Carroll’s enrollment in the new York University teaching certification program when it came to Georgian College. She completed a book in 1982-84 for the OECTA, covering their first 40 years of Catholic education in Ontario. Quiet, civil servant husband Laurence (Laurie, to all) drove her all over Ontario to interview retired nuns and prests.
Sheila and Laurie were very different, in background, upbringing, and personality. He was a quiet, steady partner to her constantly questioning, always eager mind. She was passionate about everything she was writing about, and very involved politically. They enjoyed 54 years together before his death in 2001. And when Laurie fell still, Sheila did, too, in a way. She never fully recovered from his death. She maintained fierce independence; she was a determined instructor of what she wanted during her first heart attack a week before her death.
Katherine sums up her mom this way. “She was a wonderful mother, completely supportive in anything we wanted to do. As a grandmother (to 14 grandchildren) she was encouraging and focussed on education, college or university. She loved being a great grandmother to her 4 great grandchildren.”
To sum up Sheila? “She was unique. She didn’t take guff from anybody. She did her own thing always and was willing to take the consequences. She wanted us kids to try something new, to not be afraid what other people said, to folow their own hearts.”