Valley Lives - Norma Walmsley

The following article first appeared in "The Low Down to Hull and Back News" in the January 19, 2011 issue. Reprinted with permission.

Wakefield loved its bridge builder

'She wouldn't back down until it was finished.'

by Trevor Greenway

Much-accomplished community icon Norma Walmsley dies at age 90

Norma Walmsley brought the village of Wakefield together in 1998. She didn't have a Wakefield-wide party or a mandatory citizen's meeting. She built a bridge.

"Without her, I don't think we would have a bridge," said Neil Faulkner, one of the many volunteers committed to rebuilding the Wakefield covered bridge. "A lot of people were keen, but she was determined."

Walmsley was the leading force in replacing the landmark after it burned down in 1984.

Valley Lives
Norma Walmsley dressed in her Royal Canadian Air Force uniform. Photo courtesy Joan Garnett.

Although many thought such an undertaking would not be possible, Walmsley believed otherwise. She started rallying the troops and eventually got an army behind her. She soon made a believer out of everybody.

"She was persuasive, tenacious and articulate," said Faulkner. "She was a force to be reckoned with. Not a blunt force, but a persuasive one."

Walmsley died Jan. 6 at the age of 90, leaving behind her sister Dorothy, 20 nieces and nephews and Joan Garnett, her partner of 54 years.

Even though she is still coping with the loss of the love of her life, Garnett is somewhat relieved that Walmsley's time had finally come, especially since she hadn't been well for the past couple of years.

"I've got her back," said Garnett, fighting off tears, her eyes darting around the room at various photographs of her late partner.

"Those bad years are gone. She had a great life. All I ever wanted back was my old Norma," added Garnett, her eyes tearing. She didn't cry, though.

Sitting in the couple's home just off Wakefield Heights Road, Garnett looks up at the spectacular view of Walmsley's big community project.

The house boasts one of the best views of the bridge, making it easy for Garnett to find comfort when loneliness creeps in. When Garnett looks through her front window, she sees her Norma - big, bold, strong and beautiful.

Plopped on a table is a large pile of old photographs.

Garnett flips through them, each one sparking a different reaction from the 79-year-old.

"My God, she was a knockout," she said, holding up a photo of Walmsley in a Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) uniform. "All of that Air Force stuff was so dear to her." Walmsley was the 74th female to join the RCAF women's division, in 1941, where she became Senior Officer in Charge of Women's Division Supplies for Canada and Overseas. After the war ended, Walmsley became a professor of political science at Brandon College in Manitoba, where she met Garnett. The two fell in love and moved to Wakefield in 1967. It's here where Walmsley began to work for the causes in which she passionately believed. She founded MATCH International Centre in 1976, a Canadian women's international organization guided by a feminist vision of sustainable development. She worked tirelessly, with no pay, to build the organization that is still running strongly today. MATCH is the only non-government organization working on sustainable development from a feminist perspective.

Valley Lives
Norma Walmsley twirls around her 90th birthday in Rupert. LD file photo.

Walmsley also worked with the United Nations during an outstanding career that is reflected in her many notable awards: Officer of the Order of Canada, the Governor-General's Persons Award, the Lewis Perinbam Award in International Development and the Queen Elizabeth Silver and Gold Jubilee Medals. She was also recognized as honorary life member of the Canadian Commission for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Ottawa-Gatineau Society for International Development, the Gatineau Valley Historical Society and the Larrimac Golf Club.

Walmsley also published many studies and papers and was a guest speaker at many universities in North America throughout the 1980s, including the Harvard Institute of Politics.

She was also a member of many organizations in Wakefield, including the Wakefield Hospital Foundation and the Fairbairn Museum Committee. She was also a big part of the creation of the Wakefield cenotaph. Her biggest accomplishment, though, from a Wakefield standpoint was her endless fundraising for the covered bridge.

Walmsley was always seen with a receipt book throughout the late 80s and 90s, pounding on doors to raise money for the project. She raised more than $600,000, plus in-kind services for the project, which spanned more than 10 years. Faulkner calls her endeavour a "10-year campaign," rather than a project. "She was the main fundraiser, but she was also the main mover and shaker," said Garnett. From the initial concept of the rebuild, to the final nail pounded in, Walmsley was at the forefront, putting in 12-hour days either bringing in donations or working with a hammer. Even when it seemed like completion was impossible, Walmsley persisted.

"She wouldn't back down until it was finished," said Garnett.

After more than a decade of hard work, the bridge was officially opened in 1998 - living proof of Walmsley's dedication to the community.

Valley Lives
The Wakefield Covered Bridge.

"Norma was capable of great things and one of them was the bridge," said Art Mantell, who was publisher of the Low Down when a barge carrying the bridge floated up the Gatineau River in 1996. "When I saw it coming up the river on the barge and the immensity of it all, it made me appreciate the enormity of Norma's contribution to the community."

Longtime friend Anita Rutledge, whom Garnett calls "the third musketeer" in the Garnett-Walmsley-Rutledge trio, will miss the frequent phone calls and lunches the three used to enjoy, as well as the trips to Washington to watch the cherries blossom. According to Rutledge, Walmsley had many facets: the driven community player on the one side, the down-to-earth type who loved golf, gardening, socializing with friends and family and her many hats - both literally and figuratively - on the other. "She was very loyal and was always around to help," said Rutledge. "She was a very caring person." Even when this reporter approached her for a Remembrance Day article two years ago, she lost sleep over thinking that since I moved from Calgary, I might have to spend Christmas alone that year.

Walmsley was a lady full of life to the end, still golfing, tending to her gardens and trekking up the mountain of stairs at her Wakefield home. At her 90th birthday celebration last April, she danced the night away with ease.

She believed in Wakefield up to her last days of life. She even attended the Fairbairn Victorian Christmas on the eve, just days before she died.

Wakefield surely won't be the same without her.

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