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lives lived

Betty MacDonald.Courtesy of family

Elizabeth (Betty) MacDonald: Mother. Auntie. Listener. Volunteer. Born Nov. 27, 1926, in Winnipeg; died Aug. 24, 2020, of cancer, in Toronto; age 93.

While some people have libraries or schools named in their honour, Betty MacDonald’s name was emblazoned in white letters on a navy-blue apron. The Betty apron honoured her contributions as a volunteer at David’s Place, a free lunch program at St. David Presbyterian Church in downtown Halifax. Betty was a long-time volunteer and when declining health interfered, other volunteers started saying they would be “Betty” for the shift. Eventually, organizers bought an apron for the designated Betty. The real Betty was delighted to have an apron named in her honour.

Born in Winnipeg, Betty was raised by Michael and Anna Dowling in a close-knit family with two sisters and two brothers. Betty was the darling youngest child – gregarious and lively – who loved swimming, tennis and basketball. She studied mathematics on a scholarship at the University of Manitoba but her real “major” was playing varsity basketball (and attending post-game dances).

She met Leonard MacDonald, who recently arrived from PEI to find work, at a church dance and they fell in love. Their courtship included volunteering to fill sandbags during the 1950 Red River flood. After marrying in 1951 they raised six children – John, Mary Rose, Michael, James, Connie and Roddy – in Winnipeg, Toronto and Halifax, as the family followed Len during his career with Imperial Oil.

In this crowded house, Betty was a solid production cook; she guarded the refrigerator, stretched food a long way and had a creative touch with leftovers. Chores were assigned to the children and monitored with a watchful eye. Parental control was exerted over TV shows she deemed violent, including The Three Stooges and The Twilight Zone, despite the childrens’ pleas.

Betty and Len volunteered wherever they lived, including Len with St. Vincent de Paul Society and Betty with the Victorian Order of Nurses (for more than 20 years). “I volunteer because my parents were volunteers. I want them to be happy with me,” she once said, many years after her parents had passed away. Volunteerism became a natural part of her own family’s schedule. Their actions spoke to how important they felt it was to give back to society and they set an example for their children who, in turn, made their own volunteer contributions.

The couple loved retirement in Halifax and when Len died in 2000, Betty’s adjustment included working at David’s Place. Betty was a compassionate listener. Disadvantaged people sought her company because she treated them as equals. She offered some relief from their troubles. Her fellowship – often reinforced with a hug – left many guests feeling a bit more human. “It means a lot to people to give them a hug,” she said.

Declining mobility forced Betty into reluctant retirement from volunteerism, and she moved to Toronto to be closer to family. But she always had loonies to give to the homeless and other people in need that she met during her walks through Bloor West Village. She knew many of their names and understood that a loonie was also an acknowledgment of someone’s humanity.

In June, Betty refused cancer treatment. She faced death bravely and peacefully. She never complained but did miss her buddies on Bloor Street and worried about them.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced David’s Place to suspend operations. Hopefully, one day soon, a volunteer will put on the blue apron and serve lunch to a hungry guest. That would make Betty happy.

James MacDonald is one of Betty’s children.

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Lives Lived celebrates the everyday, extraordinary, unheralded lives of Canadians who have recently passed. To learn how to share the story of a family member or friend, go to tgam.ca/livesguide