Maybe it was her training as a nurse that made her so empathetic to those without a voice. Or maybe it was because life handed her a set of challenges that she met head on. Whatever, Marion Fell came up the dirt road that was Hwy 27, landing in Barrie in 1933 as a nursing student at Royal Victoria Hospital, and Barrie has never been the same.
Sitting at Marion’s funeral service last Sunday, I imagined that each petal on each of the many many flowers were the faces of dogs and cats, of wild injured animals, of little birds that Marion nursed back to health over her 70+ adult years here.
Marion Fell was the voice of the humane treatment of animals in the town of Barrie for the 1940’s, 50’s, and on up to 2002 when she moved from her almost-lifetime home at 106 Shanty Bay Rd to a lifelease apartment on Dean AVE in the city’s south end. She worked tirelessly with veterinarians Curtis Spearin and Lloyd Fisher to make sure abandoned and sick animals had the best chance of getting well. She rolled up her sleeves and helped Gordon Beswetherick turn his rural property at the end of Edgehill Dr into dog runs, squirrel shelters, places where animals could get well and be safe.
She mobilized a whole community of animal lovers to raise enough money to buy property and build Barrie’s still-Humane Society building on Patterson Rd. In the process she made lifelong friends. (read more at https://www.donnadouglas.com/columns/barrie-advance/when-loving-animals-isnt-enough.html). Marion helped build the shelter and then worked as its manager. She coaxed useful people onto its Board of Directors. She celebrated paying off the mortgage a decade after the shovel went into the ground. She was thrifty (who wasn’t–growing up in the 30’s) and she was practical.
It was Marion’s absolute verve that drew people to her. Son Bill describes his mother’s ability to just dig in and get things done. Her husband Bert (or, Brandy) was off at work as a CNR conductor; Bill and Jon off who-knows-where and a cement truck pulled in the driveway and dropped an entire load of fresh concrete at the mouth of the newly built garage. Marion was alone. She grabbed a rake, a shovel, and ran out to deal with more than a ton of concrete. Today, more than half a century later, that garage floor is as smooth and free of cracks and chips as it was the day Marion finished it. She also shingled that garage.
Bricks and mortar were tools Marion used more than once. Equipped with a trowel, she built a substantial barbecue in the backyard of the family home on Shanty Bay Rd. Then she added a huge fish pond which was emptied every year, gold fish moved to huge tanks in the basement.
When my own son was about five, we paid a visit to Marion and Bert’s home to see all the birds. Birds of every shape and colour lived in enormous pens in the backyard all summer…between 100 and 200 of them. In late fall they were moved to the basement which was completely devoted to pens that stood eight feet high. Bill remembers bird cages on the kitchen counter with heating pads in the bottom to regulate the body temperature of an ailing bird.
Marion’s quest for fairness for the animal kingdom created lifelong friendships for her and Bert. Bill Malcolmson, Min Hines, Fred Kaigen, Dr Chuck Weatherstone, Wyman Jacques, Betty Northover, Ted Swain, Aldermen Fred Smith and Les Jolliffe, Tom Hughes, Inspector Harry Brown… Marion’s friends were people who cared about animals.
Her husband Bert was probably her biggest fan. Bert was Marion’s second marriage. In 1938 she married her first husband, Norm Hooper, who died during the war in 1943, just after her infant son, Paul, died. Son Jon was born in 1943 and Marion made ends meet by renting rooms in her Sanford St house to women whose husbands were based at Camp Borden.
She married Brandy Fell in 1947, gave birth to Bill (a popular Barrie Central Collegiate teacher) in 1948 and moved to the Shanty Bay Rd house in 1950. Fifty-two years later, she and Brandy moved to The Terraces on Dean AVE and he lived just a few days after the move, dying of cancer, but content that his wife was settled into simpler living.
The Terraces allowed its residents to bring one pet with them when they moved in. Marion brought one birdcage. And 10 birds!”
You’d think once a person is into their 90’s, they’d stop having ‘firsts’ in their lives. Not Marion! At age 90 she went to the May migration of birds–hundreds of species–at Pt Pelee in southern Ontario. Afraid of water her entire life, she joined Bill in a tandem kayak at age 93 as he paddled her around favourite islands in Georgian Bay. At age 97 she decided she’d like to experience the thrill of downhill skiing and the family tucked her into a ski limo, and she was guided down the mountains at Sun Peaks, the Fell grandchildren all at her side. She rode the Gondola at Whistler to experience the meadows and wildlife in the summer at the top of the mountain.
Marion left us two weeks ago, just months shy of her 100th birthday, in her sleep, as she would have wished. She lived in her home until her final address change. And if you think of Dr Dolittle and Rex Harrison’s 1967 recording of “If I could talk to the animals, what a wonderful world it would be!” it’s not impossible to imagine Marion doing just that right now.