Celebrating Lotta’s legion of loyal supporters: Gerry Brown (1919-2018)

“I remember a slight woman in an olive military suit who held the room spellbound.”

I was saddened recently to find out that Gerry Brown, a long-time fan and supporter of Dr Lotta Hitschmanova, had passed away in Winnipeg at the age of 98.

Gerry was one of USC Canada’s most dedicated volunteers and Board members. She first met Lotta in Vancouver in 1944, and decades later she joined USC’s legendary group of Winnipeg volunteers at Firehall #5.

Here is a biographical note that Gerry wrote in 2012.

David Rain

I first met Lotta in 1944

During my first teaching post at Inglewood High School in West Vancouver, B.C. in 1944, my extracurricular activity was teacher representative for the Hi-Y girls club.

The school nurse learned that a Dr Hitschmanova would be speaking in Vancouver and suggested it would be important for my Hi-Y girls to attend. About eight of us caught the ferry at Ambleside, crossed the straight to the Hastings St dock and walked to the downtown meeting place. As it was war time and gas was rationed, most people took the ferry rather than travel by car over Lions Gate Bridge.

She held us spellbound

I don’t recall who organized the meeting but I do recall a crowd of between 150 to 200 people attending. I remember a slight woman in an olive military suit who held the room spellbound, not only by her eloquence but also by her poignant stories of the plight of children traumatized by war. Her person and her message were unforgettable.

In due course, Gib and I married, had two sons and lived in Victoria. Dr Hitschmanova came annually to town, stayed at the Empress hotel where she had favoured guest status [NB: she was regularly given the Vice-Regal suite!], and always had a message that was newsworthy.

I wanted to volunteer for USC

Four decades later we were living in St Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec. Gib was retiring and we were interested in a volunteer activity we could both share. In as much as we had admired the work of Dr Lotta and USC, we visited 56 Sparks St and learned that the Winnipeg Branch chairperson was Iona Pilowski.

Upon arriving in Winnipeg in 1981, we soon became involved with the USC Winnipeg Branch which met every Tuesday at Firehall #5, from 1 to 4pm.

Meeting some of USC’s early “Pioneers”

At this time, we found the following volunteers who were among the original USC Branch members still meeting weekly to sort and pack clothing as they had done since 1946: Euphemia Tainsh, Ethel Jolly, Clare Hart, Evelyn Burstow, Val Thornsteinson, Marjorie Farmer, Alex Pilowski and Jack Mather. [DR: my own grandmother, Mary Rain, was also a member of this volunteer group]

Iona Pilowski, Margaret Ware, Kay Eliason, and Helen and Helmut Schaetzle were also involved. When the boxes were ready for shipping, a banding bee was organized and additional volunteers including students from Daniel McIntyre school were recruited.

Thanks to the guys at Firehall #5……

It all began with a group of Unitarian Church women who started meeting and collecting clothing in the church basement. However, as space became limited, around 1950, they negotiated with nearby Firehall #5 to receive and store the boxes that were dropped off. This proved to be a most valuable arrangement as the firehall was open 24 hours, making it convenient for both individuals and groups.

Except for one year, 1982-83 (when Firehall #2 was used while Firehall #5 was renovated), the firehall gave USC this service free from 1950-1982 and beyond. In 1987, Firehall #5 received USC’s “Letter of Commendation.” Goodness knows the total number of pounds of clothing etc that was shipped. We do know that between 1946-1950 the Winnipeg branch shipped 160,000 pounds and in one year (1979), 24,900 pounds.

…and to many other Winnipeg groups!

Records of thank you notes list nearly 100 individuals and some 60 groups, including 44 different Kinette clubs, Women’s Institutes, Relief Workers, Social and Community clubs, Sewing Circles and IODE’s from over 50 towns in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Northern Ontario regularly sending boxes of clothing by truck. The truckers agreed to include USC boxes free whenever they were making a regular Winnipeg trip.

Dr Lotta’s annual trips to Winnipeg

In those early days, Dr Lotta often visited Winnipeg and was escorted by a Branch member to pay her respects to the Lieutenant Governor, Mayor, and Fire Chief, as well as doing media interviews. Her purpose was to report to donors on overseas projects and to encourage new donors. By the late 1970s, when Dr Lotta could no longer travel to Winnipeg on a regular basis, a project officer came from Ottawa.

Gib, Friederike Knabe, and George brown in 1989 at a luncheon for vounteers in the Parliamentary dining room.

Hosting other USC visitors

In 1983, I replaced chairperson, Iona Pilowski, as the person to escort the project officers, which afforded me the privilege of working with Pamela MacRae, Andrew Stevenson, John Martin, Keith Shackleton and Friederike Knabe.

Although the purpose was the same as Dr Lotta, the project officers deviated somewhat by making presentations to service clubs, public meetings, volunteer lunches, the Unitarian Church Service and media. In the 1990s the first presentation was made to 3 classes at Fort Richmond Collegiate.

Reaching out to Winnipeg schools

In 1991 when Friederike Knabe became Director of Canadian Operations, and responsible for the Fall Tour, she became very much in demand by teachers, and schools became the highlight of the tour.

By 1999, Friederike had presented the USC message, often to more than one class in 20 different schools, private and public, elementary, junior high and high school, English and French, as well as immersion and university level.

Many teachers invited her back year after year because, as they reported, the USC message and especially information about our overseas projects fitted with and enriched the World Issues and Geography courses. Teachers would rearrange schedules and double up classes for students to benefit from the presentation.

In more recent years Helmut Schaetzle and Ruth Pearce have helped with the tour. It should also be noted that in recent years tour costs were more than covered as a result of honoraria, donations and fundraising connected to the tours.

Raising funds for USC’s work overseas

On Oct 17, 1994, the Winnipeg branch held an International Buffet Dinner to celebrate USC’s 50th anniversary. Rajendra Kumas, a University of Manitoba student from Nepal was our guest and favoured us with music from Nepal. This successful dinner spawned an annual fundraising luncheon to coincide with the fall tour.

Over the years, including the 50th dinner, the luncheons have raised $5,000 for USC. Selling crafts at shopping malls however was our best fundraiser. In 1985 the National Board decided to phase out clothing shipments because not only had shipping costs increased 5 times, but also a reliable closer source of more suitable clothing was available.

USC supporters were asked to send hand-made knitted and sewn articles and to permit us to sell them at Mall Charity Bazaars. Many individuals and 15 groups from out of town sent crafts. From the donor lists we recruited 20 people, some former foster parents, to staff the booths. In as much as Winnipeg has 5 malls sometimes having sales spring and fall, we were busy. At one time we could make well over $1,000 in 3 days and more than $7,000 to send Ottawa yearly.


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