Wife, mother, writer, critic, provocateur. Born in Morden, Man., on April 13, 1925, died in Winnipeg on June 16, 2013, of complications from a stroke, aged 88.
Lee Nitikman was always different from her neighbours. She grew up in the small southern Manitoba town of Altona, one of the few Jewish children in a German-speaking Mennonite community. She remained proudly – even fiercely – conscious of her Jewish heritage for the rest of her life.
Her family was also deeply literate. Her father, a shopkeeper, kept a vast library of books. Her mother was an early graduate of the Manitoba Normal School and had been a schoolteacher. Lee herself loved books and writing. She graduated in arts from the University of Manitoba in 1945 and went on to study journalism at Northwestern University in Chicago.
In 1947, Lee married Phillip Schachter. They made their home in Winnipeg and raised four children: Harry, Seema, Miral and Saul. As far as Lee was concerned, meals and housework were all well and good, but her real interest lay in her career as a freelance writer, editor, playwright and critic. It was an eventful career.
In 1959, one of her plays was scheduled to be broadcast on CBC Radio. It was a mildly satirical take on electoral campaigns. The play was cast, rehearsed and advertised, but a Manitoba provincial election was about to be held, and the CBC, ever nervous about its relationship with government, decided to cancel the play just before broadcast.
The cancellation made the newspapers; there were questions in Parliament about it. Lee’s children were excited to see their mother’s name on the front page of the local papers.
Lee made the front pages again in 1977. Country star Johnny Cash came to Winnipeg, where he was made an honorary citizen, and Lee was assigned to review his concert for the Winnipeg Free Press.
She liked Cash, describing him as “the rebel-sinner turned hero.” But she didn’t like his backup singers, the Carter Sisters, quite so much. She described them as “lusty, busty and loud.” Cash was so incensed that the next morning he stormed down to city hall, demanding that they take back his honorary citizenship. The civic officials had to persuade him that they had nothing to do with the review. After that, the newspaper asked Lee to review all the country acts.
Lee’s strong opinions extended to the political world. In the 1950s and 60s, she campaigned for nuclear disarmament, but she annoyed the official Ban the Bomb organizers because she insisted on carrying her own homemade signs rather than their approved ones.
Along with her love of language and writing, Lee was a life-long believer in physical fitness. For years she swam, exercised and practised yoga. Inevitably, though, she had to slow down, first to care for Phillip, who was suffering a debilitating illness, and then because of her own frailty. But to the very end, when she was finally felled by a stroke, her family marvelled at her inner strength and her tenacity. She never stopped being provocative and opinionated.
Harry Schachter is Lee’s son.