In 1938, Lucile Garner had the distinction of being the first Canadian airline stewardess hired by fledgling Trans-Canada Airlines (renamed Air Canada in 1965). At 5 feet 5 inches, she was actually considered tall for the stewardess requirements, but she had an important qualification besides her wholesome good looks: She was a trained nurse. For the dozen or so passengers crammed into a Lockheed Electra, this was an important consideration. Air sickness was a given on the more turbulent flights.
But Ms. Garner thought the job was a unique opportunity and a chance for adventure – something denied to most women in the Depression years of the 1930s. In a recent interview, she said: “Oh, to be a stewardess was something. It was an achievement, and the pay was $125 a month. Nurses didn’t make that much money. It was an adventure, everything was new about it; it was a brand new life for women.”
Lucile Garner Grant was 102 when she died peacefully in Oakville, Ont. on March 4.
Margaret Lucile Coleman Garner was born to Lieutenant Colonel Albert Coleman Garner and the former Margaret Blythe Tait on June 13, 1910, in Qu’Appelle, Sask. Colonel Garner, a decorated veteran of the Boer War and the First World War, was chief surveyor of the Surveys Branch of Saskatchewan’s Land Titles Office.
Ms. Garner grew up in Regina and, when she finished high school, she decided half-heartedly on a career in nursing. In 1937, she graduated from the nursing program at Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal as a registered nurse and moved to Vancouver.
A pilot friend of hers mentioned that Trans-Canada Air Lines was looking for someone to set up a stewardess training program similar to the version already in place with major airlines in the United States. Ms. Garner was interviewed and became the first female employee at Trans-Canada Airlines.
Like their American counterparts, Canadian stewardesses had to meet strict height and weight requirements, could not marry, had to be registered nurses and were, according to an interview Ms. Garner once gave, supposed to be between the ages of 21 and 26.
Among her many job requirements, Ms. Garner was asked to design the first stewardess uniform, in 1938. The uniform was meant to “remind passengers more of the girl next door, rather than a femme fatale.” This was taken from the Air Canada’s 75th commemorative website http://75.aircanada.com/landing/ It’s one of stories on the timeline page.
But as Ms. Garner explained in a recent interview, nobody liked the colour. “They wanted the uniform to match the airplane interior, which was beige. And they didn’t want navy blue because that’s what the pilots wore. So I got a lovely wool gabardine in beige … and got an excellent tailor to make a lovely, lovely uniform … but nobody liked it. … By 1939, the uniform was navy blue, and then everybody liked it.”
Ms. Garner’s other duties as the first Canadian nurse-stewardess were to monitor weather patterns, handle radio communications and invent a suitable food plan for a transcontinental flight. Sardine sandwiches were replaced with boxed lunches, coffee was served from a large Thermos and meals were balanced on pillows.
The planes were cold in the winter and bounced around in inclement weather. The cabin wasn’t pressurized, so oxygen masks were necessary at certain altitudes. Ms. Garner was asked if passengers were ever afraid. “Oh, yes, they were all scared to death. They didn’t know what it was all about. They used to say, ‘Oh, I love flying!’ But really, they were just trying to be brave about it.”
Her daughter, Margaret MacLure, says her mother was never afraid of flying. “The biggest fears revolved around the airplane accumulating ice on the wings [as there was no de-icing in those days] and on the fact there was no radar.” As Ms. Garner herself recalled: “It was quite a feeling to look out and see that ice forming. You knew the aircraft could only take so much before it would start to lose its lift.”
In 1941, Ms. Garner switched airlines to start up a stewardess program at Yukon Southern Air Transport (later Canadian Pacific Airlines), but left the company later the following year when she married Norman Dennison, an aeronautical engineer she met when she first started at TCA. And by then, she had reached the retirement age of 32.
Her sense of adventure was still irrepressible. In 1951, she and Mr. Dennison and their two children, Margaret and John, moved to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia for what was supposed to be a two-to-three-year stint. Mr. Dennison was hired by the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization to train the local airline staff in aero maintenance and Ms. Garner took a job through the ministry of education to teach at a commercial school.
But soon after arriving in Ethiopia, Mr. Dennison developed health problems, and within nine months the family returned to Canada, settling in Lachine, Que. Mr. Dennison rejoined TCA, but his health continued to deteriorate and in 1955 he died of kidney complications.
Ms. Garner’s life took a different turn, however, when she reconnected with Lieutenant Colonel Jack Grant, whom she had met while she was in the nursing program at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal. He was a widower with two young children.
They married on March 31, 1956, and with four children between them, they continued to live in Lachine.
Although Ms. Garner’s philosophy was always to look forward, in her latter years she revisited her experiences as a nurse-stewardess with members of the Canadian Maple Wings – an association of former Canadian flight attendants of Trans-Canada Air Lines and Air Canada.
Always modest about her achievements, in an interview for a book titled Canadian Maple Wings Association: Flight Attendant History, she reflected on her experience with TCA: “I didn’t think I was doing something daring by flying; we never felt we were pioneers or thought we were doing anything exceptional. It wasn’t until 25 years later that I realized it had been significant – to ready everything for the first transcontinental flight – I just knew it had to be done, and I did it.”
Lucile Garner Grant was predeceased by her first husband, Norman Dennison, her second husband, Jack Grant, her brother John and her sister Grace. She leaves her brother Donald, her children, John and Margaret, her step-children, Jackie and Fred, and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.