Born in 1905, Ellen Gibb lived through two world wars, the Great Depression and countless other historical landmarks. But she didn’t like to talk about any of that.
“I remember asking her once about the Titanic. I just sort of said, ‘Do you remember that?' And she just looked at me and said ‘Yeah, it sank,’” said Brittany Duggan, one of Ms. Gibb’s great-grandchildren. “She was not someone who lived in the past.”
Ms. Gibb died Wednesday evening at her nursing home in North Bay, Ont. At 114 years old, plus 40 days, she wasn’t just the oldest Canadian, she was the oldest person in North America and the ninth oldest person on Earth, according to the Gerontology Research Group.
“Once it kind of hits you … that she [was] born in 1905, it’s almost unfathomable,” Ms. Duggan said.
According to her family, Ms. Gibb was sharp and charismatic until the end of her life. “She had a mind like a steel trap right till the end,” said Dave Crozier, her grandson.
Ellen Box, who was later known by her nickname “Dolly,” was born on April 26, 1905 in Winnipeg. Her father, John Box, was a Scottish-Canadian prospector who sought his fortune in the Klondike gold rush. Her mother, the former Virginia Beauvette, a woman of Métis heritage, died when Ellen was five years old, leaving her father to raise her and her five siblings, Nora, Art, Jimmy, Alex and Elizabeth.
Her daughter, Sue Crozier, who turns 80 in August, said it was probably her brothers who gave her the name Dolly.
“She had long, long legs, and they used to come up with all kinds of nicknames,” Ms. Crozier said. “They used to call her spider and then it got changed to Dolly. She was probably happy for the change.”
As a young woman, she worked at Eaton’s in Winnipeg, where she nurtured a love of fashion she would keep for the rest of her life.
“She was always well dressed,” Mr. Crozier said. “I remember her mowing the lawn in a black dress. She had a small little lawn but there she was out there all dressed. … She only started wearing pants when she turned 100.”
When she married Dave Gibb in 1928 she was forced to leave Eaton’s – the company didn’t knowingly employ married women at that time. She and Mr. Gibb, a metalsmith, moved into a small home in Thunder Bay, Ont.
They had two daughters: Eleanor, in 1928, and Sue, in 1939.
Mr. Gibb died in 1968 at age 62, but Dolly continued to live on her own in Thunder Bay until she turned 100, when she moved into a nursing home in North Bay. Her daughter Eleanor died of lung cancer in 1991, also at the age of 62.
In the 1980s, Ms. Gibb won $250,000 in a provincial lottery but gave most of it away to her family, according to Mr. Crozier.
“I don’t even know she ever bought herself anything when she won that. Just a few more clothes I guess,” he said with a laugh.
Her family attributed her longevity to “great genetics and diet, regular walks, a love of family and generosity to others.” Ms. Gibb was known to drink one beer a day and would occasionally joke that her boyfriend’s name was Bud – Bud-weiser.
Ms. Gibb leaves her daughter, Sue Crozier; nine grandchildren; 22 great-grandchildren; and 12 great-great-grandchildren.
In her later years, Ms. Gibb became well-known across the country because of her great age and generosity. She was featured on astronaut Chris Hadfield’s speaking tour and received birthday cards from prime ministers and a letter from the Queen. She was something of a celebrity in North Bay.
“Everybody knows the name Dolly. They wouldn’t know her real name but they would know Dolly,” Mr. Crozier said.
But she didn’t care much for the title of “oldest Canadian.” Every time she was moved up the list of oldest people in the world, she would brush it off.
“She was just enjoying life,” Mr. Crozier said.