Loa Ellen Henry: Matriarch. Teacher. Artistic director. Feminist. Born July 16, 1938, in Winnipeg; died Jan. 26, 2020, in Winnipeg, of pancreatic cancer; aged 81.
Loa Ellen Henry was raised by a single mother, who often worked evenings as a reporter with the Winnipeg Tribune. Loa was left to look after and cook for her two brothers, Donnelly and Tim, and she took charge of their little wartime house. If the living room needed painting, she just did it, even as a young girl. She was always a take-charge person.
Their home was a creative and artistic place. Her mother wrote Lulu Street, a play about the Winnipeg general strike that was performed at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, and both of her brothers became professional actors.
In her late 20s, Loa was left on her own with four young children. Fearful she could not support her family without a high-school diploma, she returned to school. She’d get the children ready for their day, then attend her own Grade 12 classes. After school, she’d make the children supper, play with and bathe them, and tuck them into bed. Only then did she start her homework. She’d been out of school 10 years. It was overwhelming. By year end, she was exhausted, but she had the second highest Grade 12 average in the school.
Loa discovered she was a natural teacher and, after another exhausting year, graduated from the teaching program at the University of Manitoba. For 25 years, she taught elementary school and was much loved by her students.
Loa was devoted to her four children. Kathleen, the oldest, remembers how responsibilities were turned into fun activities. Paula, the youngest, remembers Saturday mornings in bed with her siblings and Loa, talking and laughing. Heather and David recall how they’d put on plays for neighbourhood children and dance in the living room while Loa played the piano (she taught herself to play and read music).
After completing a university degree by taking evening and summer classes, Loa attended a performance by Nellie McClung Theatre, a feminist theatre group. She was smitten, and after the show she marched up and said, “I want to be part of this.” She became an actor and, before long, the troupe’s artistic director. They were funny, often outrageous, and they changed the way women saw themselves. Later, as artistic director of the Winnipeg Labour Choir for many years, she performed such songs as Bread and Roses and Joe Hill, keeping alive ideas about the struggle for equality and human dignity.
Loa met Jim Silver in 1982 at an anti-war event, where a mutual friend, a Nellie McClung player, introduced them. The following week, he invited her to an evening of music at Al Café, a Chilean refugee coffee house. From that day, they were never apart until Loa’s death, 37 years later.
Loa and Jim’s home was filled with love, laughter, family and friends (and another daughter, Zoe), all nourished by Loa’s quiet and passionate presence. Grandchildren often pleaded with their parents to stay home from school to have a “Grandma day.”
Loa’s celebration of life, attended by more than 250 people, was held at the West End Cultural Centre, where she had performed countless times. The afternoon was filled with music and loving tributes for a wonderful woman committed to social change through art and music.
Jim Silver is Loa’s husband.
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