England was at war and Eileen Glavin, then Eileen Gurnett, wanted to contribute. She joined the Royal Air Force in 1943, hoping her knowledge of Morse Code – learned at Girl Guides – might be useful.
She landed a position working as a wireless operator in Dunstable, spending hours searching frequencies for messages, writing down what she heard, typing it up, and handing the transcriptions over to someone who would come by on a small motorcycle. Sometimes she would put the precious data into a tube and bike it over to nearby Bletchley Park.
Bletchley Park, now famously, was a key spying operation for the Allies, where under Alan Turing’s leadership, codebreakers penetrated communications between the enemy Germans.
“We knew it was important work, but we had no idea what it was,” Ms. Glavin told The Globe and Mail in 2018, when she was 97. “We knew we had an important job, we were sworn to secrecy. So we just didn’t worry very much because we couldn’t talk about it.”
She didn’t talk about it, as instructed, for 25 years. By the time she could, she was a single mother of four boys, living in the suburbs of Vancouver.
“It was this sort of grand disclosure that mum was now able to speak about her time in the RAF and her work in that project,” says her youngest son, Anthony (Tony) Glavin. “Even for a little kid, it was kind of, like, ooh, sort of James Bond-ish.”
Years later, to mark Ms. Glavin’s 90th birthday, family members took her back home to England and Ireland, including a stop at Bletchley, now a museum, for a tour.
“Mum was given a seat in the front row,” says Tony, who had let the museum know she was coming in advance. The guide told the large group that there was a “Bletchley Girl” – as they have become known – in their midst, resulting in a standing ovation.
“Her attitude was: ‘What’s all the excitement about; why is everybody making such a fuss?’” says another son, Terry Glavin. “Because the truth is that was a very subtle form of heroism.”
Her real heroism was in how she lived: always reaching for silver linings, half-full glasses, adventure and laughter. “For mum, I think she just had to see the sunshine through the storm, something that carried her through her entire life,” Tony said in his eulogy for his mother this month.
In her last week of life, when the priest absolved Ms. Glavin of her sins, she said afterward: “Wait, is that all? All my sins are forgiven? If I had known how simple that was, I would have sinned a lot more in life.”
Eileen Glavin – saint to so many, and occasional sinner – died of natural causes on Jan. 29. She was 101. And a half.
Eileen Gurnett was born in Barking, Essex, England on June 16, 1921, and raised in nearby Billericay by her Irish parents, Thomas and Alice Gurnett (née Kelly), who had eight children.
Wartime was terrifying; at one point, she escaped a bombing, scrambling over rubble to make it to her secret RAF job.
She also suffered devastating losses: Her 19-year-old brother, Patrick, a paratrooper, was killed in the war’s final days. A boyfriend, who had been a pilot, also died.
“It really impacted her,” says Tony, in an interview. “Not in a way that one might think, but in this most remarkable way.” It affirmed her resolve to seek the positive. “Happiness is a decision,” she would often say.
On V-E Day, she danced all day and all night, as she described it, in the streets of London.
Shattered at the loss of Patrick, her parents returned to Ireland. While Eileen often visited the family farm, Coolreagh, in County Clare, she ultimately immigrated to Canada, as did her sister Mary, in 1957.
Living in Burnaby, Ms. Glavin separated from her husband and raised their four sons on her own, earning a living with jobs as an Avon Lady and at a laundromat. She excelled at both.
Ms. Glavin was good at keeping secrets – not just wartime ones – and always had a large circle of friends for whom she was an adored companion and confidante.
Money was tight, but the family home was a haven for the boys and their friends; some even moved in for stretches when things were tough with their own parents.
She threw legendary Christmas Eve parties; stacks of gifts for the beloved Eileen would spill out from one room to the other.
Her four sons grown, Ms. Glavin, now in her early 60s, started raising more children. Ms. Glavin, a devout Catholic, was hired as a nanny by a rabbi and his wife for their growing family in Vancouver. She became an integral member of the family. Rabbi Mordecai and Shayndel Feuerstein called her their co-pilot; she called their kids “my Jewish children,” according to her biological sons.
“When people ask me to describe her, I say she’s a blend of Mary Poppins, Fraulein Maria [from The Sound of Music] and Mrs. Doubtfire,” Aviva Feuerstein, one of the children for whom Ms. Glavin was a nanny from birth, said at her funeral.
Ms. Feuerstein recalls a childhood full of adventures. Ms. Glavin would help the kids create little concerts à la the Von Trapp family that they would perform on weekends for house guests. And every night Ms. Glavin tucked her and her siblings into bed, singing lullabies.
“I would not be where I am today without her love and the confidence that she gave me,” says Ms. Feuerstein, a presidential speechwriter for Joe Biden.
Ms. Glavin was nanny to the family until her late 70s, when the Feuersteins moved to New Jersey. But they stayed close.
Ms. Glavin spent the last nearly 25 years of her life in New Westminster. B.C., and remained extremely active well into her later years. In her 80s, she was still riding on the back of her oldest son Michael’s Harley. In her 90s, she sang in a choir entertaining residents of a retirement home, some of whom were 20 years younger than Ms. Glavin. She would attend mass at St. Peter’s Catholic church, walking up and down the steep hill well into her 90s. It kept her fit, she said.
She lived on her own until she was 98, when she moved into assisted living. She transferred to the Kiwanis Care Centre in 2021, the year she turned 100.
“When I got to the nursing home just before COVID, I very quickly solidified my role as the troublemaker,” Ms. Glavin said in a video recording. Her crimes? Keeping some gin on hand and being too social at mealtimes.
She was still great at solving puzzles: At the care home, she was getting top scores in Jeopardy!, trivia contests and spelling bees, until just a few weeks before she died.
On the last night of her life, Ms. Feuerstein was with her, and her siblings joined from all over the world online to sing songs for Ms. Glavin once again. In her last moments, Ms. Feuerstein crawled into bed with her and sang two favourites: Edelweiss and Josh Groban’s You Raise Me Up. “It was the greatest honour for my family to be able to sing her to sleep at the end of her life, just as she had always sung us to sleep at the beginning of ours,” Ms. Feuerstein says.
The isolation that came with COVID-19 was extremely difficult for Ms. Glavin. But when asked for her message to the world as people struggled with the pandemic, she said: “Never give up. Keep on fighting. No matter how bad and dark things look. See the best side of everything. If you look on the dark side, you’ll go right downhill. There’s a bright side to everything – you just have to keep looking for it. This isn’t advice – it’s just what I do. Find that sunshine.”
Eileen Glavin leaves her sons, Terry, David and Tony; seven grandchildren, four great-grandchildren and one great-great granddaughter – as well as her Jewish children. She was predeceased by her oldest son, Michael, and her former husband, Michael.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this obituary stated incorrectly that Ms. Glavin learned Morse Code at Girl Scouts. This version has been corrected to state that she learned it in Girl Guides.