Shirley Wright is a bit of a rarity.
It’s not just that Shirley recently celebrated her 90th birthday, it’s that she has lived every one of those years right here in Smithers.
She has gotten away from Smithers from time to time. In fact, she has seen most of North America during her 90 years.
She wasn’t overly impressed with Washington, D.C. and Florida was too hot, but she absolutely loved the Maritimes, particularly Newfoundland and Labrador.
She and her husband John also did a lot of camping with their kids in B.C., Alberta and, primarily, Saskatchewan where John’s family lives.
Nevertheless, Smithers always remained home.
“Well, I’ve never found a place better,” she declared.
Travel for Shirley started when she was just a child visiting her maternal grandparents in the Lower Mainland on her dad’s CN employee train pass.
“It was a real treat,” she recalled. “My granddad used to take me and we’d walk down to Kingsway in Burnaby. And he’d buy me an ice cream cone for five cents. I thought, ‘oh boy,’ I thought I had really hit the jackpot.”
Shirley Wright was born Shirley Robinson on January 15, 1932, the first of five children and the last to be born at the old Bulkley Valley District Hospital across from the Old Church. The new hospital on 8th Avenue opened in 1934.
Smithers was, of course, a very different town in those days. It was primarily a railroad town, a legacy that runs through Shirley’s family. Her grandfather, her father and her husband all worked for CN.
Shirley can remember the gravel roads, wooden sidewalks and sewage ditches that ran along the streets.
“One time my brother was riding his wagon, and he went in the ditch and there was sewage in there,” she said. “I remember my mother just undressing him on the back porch and hosing him off.”
It was a simple upbringing, she recalled. When they weren’t in school, the kids spent all of their time playing outside in the park where Muheim Memorial Elementary School now stands (the old school sat at the back of the lot).
After graduating from the high school, which was then where Coast Mountain College is now, Shirley went to work for the Royal Bank. It was through that job, she would meet John in 1951.
“I was working at the bank and one of the girls got married,” she said. “And she married a railroad fellow, so John was at the wedding because he knew him and that’s where we met.”
A two-year courtship ensued. In Smithers, in the early 1950s, that usually meant heading out to the public beach at Lake Kathlyn.
“There used to be a big hall and every Saturday night there was a dance and we went there,” she said. “Of course, he was a conductor, so he wasn’t always in town. And also, there were dances out at Glenwood Hall and we went to movies a lot. Even growing up as a teenager that’s what we did, go to the movies.”
All of these recollections she recounted from her condominium on Third Avenue, within a few hundred metres of where they all occurred.
“I always lived on Third Avenue here as a child,” she said. “About three different houses on this side and then on the other side of me, our house was right where Shoppers Drug Mart parking lots. And one of the houses that I lived in was right up here where the post office is.”
Since then, what has really struck Shirley about how Smithers has changed is simply the growth of the size of the town.
With a population of mostly British settlers and their Indigenous predecessors that hovered around the 700 mark throughout the depression until after the Second World War when the first wave of immigration from continental Europe hit, she has seen the number of residents increase eight-fold.
For her part, after she married, she and John added five girls to the population.
While their daughters were growing up, Shirley did the stay-at-home mom thing until the youngest, Tracy, was around Grade 4.
“Then I went to night school and took the (one) year accounting course,” she said. “Math was always my thing. I always liked dealing with figures.”
She wasn’t able to put it to use right away, but after a year answering phones at the radio station, she got a bookkeeper position at Smithers Home Support where she stayed for 13 years until retiring in 1993.
Unfortunately, that was also the year John died unexpectedly.
“He was only 68,” she said. “It was his heart, and then they found out he had lung cancer. You know, he was hardly ever sick, but then all of a sudden.”
John had taken early retirement 11 years earlier and they used the time to travel and see most of Canada and the United States.
“When you look back, it’s a good thing we did it then; it was a good thing he had early retirement.”
Throughout all of it, one thing was a constant, a love of sport.
Shirley was an avid curler for 50 years.
“I enjoyed it,” she said. “And then my husband had never curled when we got married. I got him curling. So, it was part of our social life.”
Her curling career was highlighted by a trip to Kelowna for the ladies provincial championships in 1974. Shirley’s team, which included Adeline Fraser, Jo Sargent and Margo Kempert, did not win that bonspiel, but it was a proud moment nonetheless.
Shirley hasn’t curled for a few years, now, but her longevity and service to the club earned her the status of Lifetime Member.
Service over the years included the regular volunteering most members do.
“I’ve painted there at the curling club, and we had to do so many hours, you know, working in the kitchen or the bar.
But she also put her bookkeeping skills to work as treasurer for two years and when the ladies senior provincial championships came to Smithers in 1985, she was the chairperson.
At 50, Shirley took up golf and played for 30 years.
“I had a few friends, we used to seem to think we had to be the first ones on the golf course,” she said. We’d be out there at seven in the summers. Well, that’s the best time to go.”
At 90, Shirley has slowed down quite a bit. These days, she is content to watch curling and golf on TV and she is a big fan of the Toronto Blue Jays harkening back to childhood days playing scrub on the Muheim schoolyard until mothers called their children in for dinner.
She still gets around on her own, driving and walking (with a walker), visiting with friends over coffee at Louise’s kitchen and maintaining her own apartment — with a little help from a cleaning woman who comes in every couple of weeks and her five daughters, their spouses, and 10 grandchildren (five girls and five boys), who have also given her three great-grandkids.
The pandemic kind of put a bit of a damper on the 90th birthday celebration, but Shirley took it in stride.
“It was great,” she said. “I just had the party with my daughters and some others stop by and I had lots of phone calls.”
She has also become pretty adept with the new technology after resisting it for a long time.
”My five granddaughters got together and we did a Zoom call,” she said.