It was early in 1983 and the then-desperate board of directors for Gryphon Theatre was meeting at Gryphon’s business office in a converted house on Collier St. Barrie’s 15 year old professional theatre company was in financial trouble and board members were each pledging bailout amounts of money. The bank was pressing in.
Member by member, chair John Hunter went around the room, asking each person what they could do to help the theatre’s desperate cause. Eyes rested on Val Snelgrove, the exotic red-head whose energies had been part of Gryphon’s development. As a board member Val certainly knew the perils of theatre debt. As the V of CKVR and the support behind her husband and brother-in-law’s CKBB and CKCB radio, Val could be expected to participate in the solution.
All was quiet.
“I don’t use cheques. In fact, I make it a point not to deal with money,” she quipped. Everyone laughed. Nervously.
Val meant it. But she did come through with her generous nature and her donation towards Gryphon-relief.
That, in a nutshell, demonstrates the complexity that was Val Snelgrove. And many many people knew her only as a community leader, as one of the ‘monied’ people with its associated power. Pillar of the community. One of the founders of May Court Club. An eager seamstress in the early days of the Royal Victoria Hospital auxiliary when volunteering meant hemming diapers and sewing pillow cases. A driver of the infirm and the elderly for summer outings at The Gables, the property bequeathed by the Laidlaw family to the nurses of RVH.
Val surely anchored her position of community leader by putting her considerable energy behind lots of projects. She opened her home for official launches of fundraising campaigns. She founded the May Court Club’s Odds and Sods sale which to this day continues to be a healthy revenue generator for this community service club.
She and Fran Gerow worked to start the Red Cross from the old Y building in the early 50’s. She served on a city recreation committee and she loved to play bridge, both at the old country club on Sunnidale Rd and at its new location on St Vincent St.
But behind Val Snelgrove was an incredible story of humble beginnings in Montreal where her formal education was interrupted at the end of elementary school because there wasn’t enough money to pay secondary school fees. Val joined the workforce early in life, working at the Empress Theatre as an usherette, and a cigarette girl, and later on the chorus line. She saw all the great actors of the day as Montreal was the cultural and entertainment hub of the country. She earned her public presence and went on to enjoy a modelling career, all this before meeting her sweetheart, John Moor Brewis. The couple courted for five years and once John completed his training as a geologist, he and Val were married and moved to Toronto. There, Val gave birth in 1945 to their first daughter, Elizabeth. And two years later they moved to a country home in Shanty Bay, a 200-acre farm on the water at the foot of the third line. It was a gracious home, with a gatehouse, a boathouse and they christened it Stonehurst.
Val and baby Elizabeth lived there full time and travelling geologist John came and went. In 1947 when her second pregnancy was nearly full term, Val was whisked across Kempenfelt Bay on a snowy night because the trains could not get through. The horse and cutter delivered her to the Allandale station to take the train to Toronto for the birth of a second daughter Eloise.
Just three years later, John, at age 44, died of a brain aneurism during an address to the Prospectors and Developers Convention. Val and the girls were on their own.
About the same time, young Ralph Snelgrove and his wife and their three children, Lynn, Tim, and Toby were settling in to their Barrie home and Ralph and his brother Bert were launching the region’s first radio stations, AM stations CKBB and CKCB in Barrie and Collingwood. Hailing from Owen Sound, the brothers were visionaries in their approach to media. Then Ralph’s young wife died of cancer. Time passed.
Then Ralph escorted Val out for coffee and proposed before the end of the evening. With his usual impulsiveness, he wasted no words… “Do you think we could get along with these five children?” he asked. And so Val sold the Shanty Bay home and blended her two daughters with Ralph’s three children. There were only 10 months between the four youngest children… ‘nough said.
Did Val and Ralph ever get any time on their own with this busy, growing family?
“Our front room in the fall and winter when the leaves are gone looks out on the lake with lights twinkling everywhere. As a teenager I’d come home from a date and mom and dad would be cuddled up together, in the dark, looking out at the lights, like stars. It was nice to see that intimacy,” remembers Elizabeth.
The 50’s brought television and Ralph let no grass grow under his feet before mobilizing resources to build a modest transmitting tower on the top of Little’s Hill on Highway 27, way out of town. CKVR was born, bearing Val and Ralph’s initials in its insignia. Ralph remained actively involved even after selling the operation to CHUM in the 70’s. His interest in electronic media remained until his death from cancer in 1990.
When Ralph died, Val soldiered on until five years ago when she virtually stopped going out of their Theresa St. home. She suffered from a series of medical problems, trembling, falling, failing eyesight and after four years and medical testing, Val was diagnosed with several brain tumours. Her life ended quite quickly and she spent her last few weeks at RVH, the hospital to whom she gave so much energy. She was 87.
It was typical of Val that there be no funeral. Her children couldn’t bear to go against their mother’s wishes, but at the same time they wanted to honour her friends, who gathered for a few visits at the funeral home. And it was during those sessions that Val’s kids learned much of what they didn’t know about their mom.
And as laughter filtered through the rooms, and stories passed from head to heart, Val’s energy wafted over every single one.