Often described as a quintessential Western Canadian, Marmie Hess followed her various passions to become a pioneering educator, art historian, community builder and philanthropist. She was also deeply rooted in the spectacular Rocky Mountain foothills country, southwest of Calgary, where she operated a ranch and loved taking visitors for a spin in her aging GMC Jimmy 4x4 truck.
When her friend Peter Raymont – a filmmaker – visited, they would drive off-road to where she had positioned benches for optimal enjoyment of the spectacular vistas. They would sit there for hours, sometimes sipping The Famous Grouse scotch – which Ms. Hess favoured – as she recounted stories from her extraordinary life.
Ms. Hess, who died on Sept. 2 at the age of 100, had a lot of stories to tell.
One of them, Mr. Raymont recalls, concerned painter A.Y. Jackson, one of several members of the Group of Seven whom Ms. Hess met while studying at the University of Toronto in the 1930s.
“A.Y. taught at the Banff School of Fine Arts and often visited her,” Mr. Raymont says. “Marmie talked about driving him to Banff and also into the foothills country, where she’d find landscapes for him to paint. She’d call herself A.Y.’s driver – not a bad job when you think about it.”
Ms. Hess was much more than that, though. Born into privilege as the only child of a lumber magnate, she moved easily in the upper echelons of Calgary society. Her circle of friends included the early titans of the city’s business community as well as Peter Lougheed, the former premier.
She enjoyed honorary membership in the exclusive Ranchmen’s Club decades before the organization officially allowed women to join in the early 1990s.
But Ms. Hess, who never married or had children, was no society dilettante. She pursued higher education when it was an unusual path for young women. Starting in the 1950s, she travelled extensively in the Canadian North, often hitching rides with bush pilots, and either camping out or rolling out a sleeping bag on someone’s floor. She liked to follow the routes of early explorers to learn more about the hardships they faced.
These northern adventures, and later ones as a guest of the B.C. coastal Haida and other First Nations, inspired a love of aboriginal art. She befriended native artists and introduced their works to the broader public through Calgary Galleries, which she founded in 1970. It was one of Canada’s first showcases for aboriginal art and culture.
Her fascination with the early exploration of Canada’s North also led her to assemble an extensive library, now housed at the University of Calgary, that includes thousands of rare books, pamphlets and manuscripts.
Universities and museums in North America and as far afield as Israel, Japan and China invited Ms. Hess to give lectures on Inuit and First Nations art and culture. She was instrumental in moving the Arctic Institute to Calgary from its original home in Montreal.
“Marmie focused on the Canadian North at a time few others did,” says University of Calgary official Tom Hickerson, who became a good friend after moving to the city in 2006. “It’s one of her most remarkable contributions.”
Her other contributions include volunteering for numerous cultural and community organizations, including the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede, the Calgary Zoological and Botanical Society and the Glenbow Museum. She was often the first and only female member of the boards and committees on which she served.
“Most of her endeavours were in areas dominated by the old boy’s network,” says Tania Willumsen, a former finance executive and long-time friend. “She really opened the way for younger women to take on leadership positions.”
Ms. Hess blazed trails – figuratively and literally – from an early age and continued to do so throughout her life.
Margaret Perkins Hess was born in Calgary on May 3, 1916. Her father, Frederick Hess, was president of Revelstoke Sawmill Co. Her mother, Ina (née Perkins) Hess, had attended the Toronto Conservatory of Music in the late 1890s.
Early in life, Margaret acquired the nickname Marmie, and it stuck. She grew up in a household with servants and housekeepers and never did learn to cook. But she did ride horses thanks to her father, a Boer War cavalry veteran.
“My Dad was from an era where, if you wanted to get somewhere, you either went by horse or by driving a horse,” she told an Alberta Wilderness Association interviewer in 2010. “I rode a great deal with him.”
Her father’s business took him up and down the Eastern Slopes of the Rockies and she would often accompany him on long rides, sometimes following old explorer routes.
Ms. Hess attended the private St. Hilda’s School for Girls and Western Canada High School. Ms. Hess started her bachelor of arts degree at the University of Alberta in 1934 and completed it four years later at the University of Toronto.
During the Second World War, Ms. Hess taught art history at the Provincial Institute of Technology and Art, and Banff School of Fine Arts, taking over from male instructors who had enlisted. She also volunteered with the Red Cross and established a rehabilitation program for veterans.
Following the war, she began graduate studies at the University of Iowa, but these were cut short by her mother’s death in 1946. She returned to Canada to help in her father’s business and to act as his companion at social functions.
Four years before Frederick’s death in 1956, he had purchased the historic Spencer Creek Ranch from Mr. Raymont’s father, Robert. The ranch became an enduring passion for Ms. Hess.
While she contracted out its day-to-day operations, she helped spearhead the breeding of champion show horses there and learned about everything from cattle genetics to pasture irrigation.
Meanwhile, Ms. Hess worked as an adjunct professor at the University of Alberta and University of Calgary. She served on the senate of both institutions, each of which conferred on her an honorary doctorate of law.
During his tenure as premier, Mr. Lougheed tapped Ms. Hess to help him on a key project – preserving more than 4,000 square kilometres of wilderness along the Eastern Slopes, which became known as Kananaskis Country. Serving on a committee charged with developing public facilities, she advocated for the creation of William Watson Lodge, which allows disabled people to access the remote mountain wilderness.
In 1999, Ms. Hess helped organize the reenactment, on horseback, of the North-West Mounted Police’s Great March West 125 years earlier. At age 83, she joined the riders along parts of the arduous 1,300-kilometre route.
“It’s amazing how many areas she worked at and excelled in,” the U of C’s Mr. Hickerson says. “I just think she was a hero of Canada of the very first order.”
Her many lifetime accolades include the Order of Canada (first as a member and then an officer) and the Alberta Award of Excellence. The Canadian government recognized her contributions to the Inuit by naming an archeological site in Nunavut the Hess Site.
For all her achievements, Ms. Hess suffered her share of setbacks.
She told her friend Angela Kolias that she was engaged to two different men, both of whom she lost to the Second World War.
Ms. Hess also expressed regret over never becoming a lawyer, a profession she was discouraged from entering because of her gender.
An intensely private woman, Ms. Hess welcomed few people into her Calgary home, which was filled with precious art, artifacts and books. She could be blunt in her criticisms and did not suffer fools gladly. Those who did get close to Ms. Hess, though, adored her for her sharp intellect, insatiable curiosity and generosity.
“Her complexity is what fascinated many of us,” Ms. Willumsen says. “She was challenging, charming and never at a loss for words. She was also walking history – a kind of mosaic of the 20th century.”
Ms. Hess’s philanthropy was conducted quietly, at the University of Calgary and elsewhere.
“She never wanted her name on the wall in recognition,” Mr. Hickerson says. “But she did want to meet with the students, quiz them on their studies – and find out what they planned to do with their lives.”
Though increasingly frail in her 90s, Ms. Hess remained active and engaged, attending various functions, including her own 100th birthday party, hosted by the Calgary Rotary Club last spring.
In the final week of her life, as she battled pneumonia, she told her friends: “You have to help keep me alive. I have unfinished business.”
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