CFUW Guelph’s First 60 Years – A Retrospective

Annual Meeting and dinner – May 24, 2005
Holiday Inn, Guelph
In the 1970s my husband Sandy and I were travelling on a bus in the Yorkshire Dales. An ancient man in a soiled raincoat was looking for the Dirty Duck, but no one on the bus had even heard of this pub. Finally the man showed the driver his map. “It’s right here,” he said. We heard a murmured expletive: “This map must be 50 years old.” The Dirty Duck had probably been gone for 40 years. Sandy and I thought it was the funniest thing. Imagine a man with a map that was 50 years old!That story no longer seems so hilarious, no doubt because my memories now stretch back as far as the old man’s. Tonight we’re celebrating the 60th anniversary of our club, and while many of us remember the war years, I know there are some here who see that dark period as ancient history long before their time.So I thought we’d look for a minute or two at the world in spring 1945. Victory was declared in Europe that May just as a small group of women gathered to discuss the formation of a University Women’s Club here in Guelph.

And what were our potential members doing in 1945? In safe well-fed southern Ontario, I was largely unaware of the distant war until May of that year when I saw a man hanging in the park over the makings of a huge bonfire, a terrifying experience for a seven year old. It took some explaining by my mother to convince me the effigy of Hitler was not a real person.

But some of our members were directly involved in the war.

  • Marina Zitnak was studying engineering at the University of Bratislava and witnessed successive invasions of her Slovakian village and the commandeering of the family home, first by Germans, then by Russians who forced family members to sleep on the kitchen floor.
  • Audrey Taylor, a member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service – the WRENs – was looking forward to life with her Canadian husband and new baby after a war spent in Bletchley Park and Stanmore, where she worked on the massive effort to break the Enigma code, work that was credited with helping Montgomery defeat Rommel in the desert war.
  • Marg Moon was at Queen’s University, where female students were required to study home nursing, nutrition and bomb shelter construction every Saturday morning. In a few months things would look up dramatically when the male population of the university swelled with returned servicemen.
  • Georgie Matthews (Life Member awarded in 2011-12) was awaiting Joe’s return from overseas, when he would meet his 16-month-old daughter for the first time.
  • Helen Blair was in Halifax, where husband Ken was stationed, and the gorgeous dress she is wearing tonight was already 10 years old, bought for dances during university days.

The Club’s first meeting was held in October of 1945, with Florence Partridge presiding. I believe the only surviving founding member is Doris Darroch, who is unable to attend tonight. The 33 charter members paid a $3 membership fee.

Within a year, the club:

  1. approved the idea of the creation of a cultural centre in Guelph,
  2. urged action toward establishing a museum and
  3. endorsed the efforts of the Junior Board of Trade to prevent the sale of indecent literature in Guelph.

And look where we are now. Two out of three isn’t bad.

The first scholarship of $25 was awarded in 1946. Today our annual scholarships amount to more than $5,000. In the early days, money was raised through the clever device of a birthday box. Every month members with a birthday put an amount equal to their age – in cents – in the box. The minutes report that, although there were no 100-year-old members, there were often dollar bills found when the box was opened. This has always been a generous club – supporting scholarships, a displaced woman and her mother in Munich for years after the war, sending food parcels to Britain in the early years, and later generously backing such local initiatives as the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre, the museum, the River Run, the fountain in the square and, most recently, the Reflection Garden, honouring the female engineering students slain in Montreal. In the early days, funds were raised through bridge parties at the Treanon Restaurant, now Van Gogh’s Ear, and the sponsorship of opera, dance and theatre before the University of Guelph broadened the city’s cultural horizons.

In 60 years our membership has grown from 33 to 240. Our interest groups have achieved lives of their own, but it all started with a single book group in 1948 that morphed into a play-reading group a couple of years later. Art appreciation, French and Spanish groups soon followed. In 1970, the Civic Affairs group got underway. Within three years, they were reporting regularly to the club on items of civic importance, had helped elect the first of several female city councillors, supported a number of women for appointment to local boards and commissions and contributed to the fledgling CFUW roster of qualified women. Some of these women later received government appointments. All-candidates meetings were sponsored for elections and our members were heavily involved in the establishment of the River Run Centre, the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre and supported the Guelph Spring Festival.

By the mid-70s, the Friends of the Museum swung into action in their long underwear and toques as they swept out water and snow in the market building where the first museum was housed. For 19 years they supported the museum in every way, including taking over administrative duties for a period between directors and running the museum shop in the new building on Waterloo Avenue in the early 1980s.

In 1984, Georgie Matthews and Joyce Robinson presented their epic production, “Where do we grow from here?”, featuring those memorable characters, Nellie McClung and Roy McMurtry and a chorus line of Luscious Dancing Girls. Some of those dancing girls must be here tonight. Anyone willing to own up?

From the beginning, CFUW has encouraged innovative learning in a strong public education system. In recent years the Scientists in the Schools program has introduced women scientists and educators in exciting hands-on projects in our elementary schools.

In the year 2000, our club played host to the national meeting of CFUW, with Flora MacDonald as keynote speaker. The spirit of congeniality and sisterhood at that meeting still resonates in those who attended. It is a spirit that has characterized our club over its 60-year history.

There has been so much achieved, so many friendships cemented over bridge, book discussion, on hikes and over tea and treasures. I could never cover it all, but I would like to give a big thank you to the women who made it possible, the women who have made our community so much richer and the friendships this club has made possible. It’s been a wonderful 60 years. Thank you all.

Ann Middleton