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Lily Rosebush, crusader against drunk driving, was a ‘feminist before her time’

Lily Rosebush was a pioneer in the North American movement against drinking and driving.


Impaired driving was a defining issue for Lily Rosebush long before she became a pioneer in what was to become the North America-wide movement against drinking and driving.

As her husband sank deeper and deeper into alcoholism in small-town Ontario during the 1950s, '60s and early '70s, Ms. Rosebush saw him drive drunk regularly and it terrified her.

"I used to pray, 'Please, dear God, let him run into a tree and kill himself before he kills somebody else.' But he didn't, you see. Drunks don't," she once told her long-time friend Bernadine Dodge, who interviewed Ms. Rosebush for a graduate-school assignment and wrote down her friend's reminiscences. In the end, her husband wrecked some cars, but managed to avoid harming anyone.

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What spurred Ms. Rosebush to action, however, was when another drunk driver fatally struck her son Ralph on the day after Thanksgiving in 1980. The man had four previous impaired-driving convictions.

Ms. Rosebush, who had little education and no experience with public speaking or political action, went on to galvanize her Ontario community in the fight for greater awareness of the tragic consequences of drinking and driving.

"She came from nothing and had almost nothing and did all this," Patricia Rosebush says of her mother, who died on June 14 at 89 of cancer. "It's extraordinary what she did."

Ms. Rosebush's efforts led to the creation of a committee called Peterborough Against Impaired Driving, or PAID, which she chaired from 1985 to 1994. Under her leadership, the group used creative approaches to draw attention to the issue, such as inviting Ontario city's coroner and a judge to take part in a mock trial of an impaired driver, hosting public barbecues, handing out mocktail recipes at the local mall and persuading local celebrities such as musician Ronnie Hawkins to endorse an anti-drunk-driving poster campaign. The group even managed to have a week declared "Peterborough Is Against Impaired Driving Week."

"She was extremely passionate about letting everyone know the dangers of drinking and driving," says Jane Kelly, who was a teacher at Norwood District High School, near Peterborough, when she joined PAID and met Ms. Rosebush. "She especially wanted to involve young people."

Ms. Rosebush was very open about losing her son, Ms. Kelly says, and told her story often to get the message across about the devastating effects of impaired driving. "My students thought the world of Lily," Ms. Kelly says. "They learned a lot about standing up for what you believe in and trying to make the world a better place."

Although she was in her 60s when PAID started, Ms. Rosebush was tireless, giving media interviews, meeting regularly with police and helping other communities set up their own impaired driving awareness organizations.

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"She was a pioneer. She was in on these issues when it was not such a fashionable thing to be involved in," says Peterborough Police Chief Murray Rodd, who worked closely with Ms. Rosebush on PAID for nearly a decade. He was struck by her dedication and felt that her presence was a constant reminder to him and other law-enforcement officers of the lasting devastation that impaired driving can cause. "Her energy and influence had to have saved lives," he said.

Lily Mary Houghton was born in Toronto on May 28, 1924. Her mother, also named Lily, and her father, James Houghton, immigrated to Canada separately from England when they were teenagers. After they married, they struggled to feed and clothe their family of eight, with her working at a factory or as a housekeeper and him finding a job at General Electric in Peterborough.

Although she was an avid reader, their daughter Lily, the fourth child in the family, left high school reluctantly at 14. Family lore has it that since she hadn't received scholarships as her eldest sister had, her parents felt she might as well work, according to her daughter Patricia Rosebush.

So she became a factory labourer, bringing home $9 a week, $5 of which she gave to her mother for room and board. It was a few years later, after she had taken a job at Zellers, when she met Thomas Joseph Rosebush, a handsome serviceman with the Royal Canadian Air Force. They married in 1946.

"My father was very charming and good-looking, like a living James Joyce," Patricia Rosebush says.

Mr. Rosebush, who was a skilled mechanic, moved with his 21-year-old wife to Warsaw, Ont., where he bought a garage. Lily Rosebush felt like an outsider in the tiny community and her husband became abusive to her and their growing family. Their five children were all born in Warsaw: sons Ralph and Thomas and daughters Nancy, Patricia and Kim.

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While her mother was straight-laced and shy, her father was outgoing and gregarious, Patricia recalls. "His personality was the centre of town."

Ms. Rosebush did what she could to give her children opportunities for swimming and piano lessons and library programs. She also founded local chapters of the Brownies and Girl Guides.

However, in 1969, the family's fortunes took a turn when they were forced to sell the garage. They moved a couple of times, returning eventually to Peterborough.

In 1973, when Ms. Rosebush was 49, her extended family was shocked when she left her husband. By then Ms. Rosebush had started taking shifts at Canadian Tire to help support the family. After a few years, she found a new job as a cashier and magazine buyer at the Trent University Bookstore, where she loved being around books. Ms. Rosebush wrote in a journal and composed poetry throughout her life.

She had established an independent life for herself by 1980, when her son Ralph, who had a wife and two young daughters, was killed by a drunk driver. Ms. Rosebush was devastated.

While working through her grief, she started sending strongly worded letters to the editor to the Peterborough Examiner whenever drinking and driving was in the news, and when she heard about other families affected by drinking and driving, she would call them to offer support.

Her work with PAID earned her several honours including an Ontario crime prevention award, an Addiction Research Foundation community achievement award and an award for outstanding contribution from the City of Peterborough. There was even an award created in her honour, the Lily Rosebush Award, for people who did like-minded work.

"That kind of work was a solace," her close friend Ms. Dodge says. "Somehow if you've had this kind of a crisis in your life, it's a way of focusing on something positive and not dissolving. I think that's what it did for Lily."

Coincidentally, Ms. Rosebush had lost her son the same year that Candy Lightner, the woman who went on to start Mothers Against Drunk Driving, lost her own 13-year-old daughter in California because of an impaired driver.

In 1994, PAID was folded into another organization and Ms. Rosebush, at age 70, ended her involvement, leaving her more time for her other passion, gardening. She never owned a plot of land to cultivate, but she received permission from the owner of her apartment building to look after the flowers there, so that became her primary occupation. Even though she had begun using a walker, she created a spectacular garden that won first prize in a 2005 contest run by the local Communities in Bloom Committee.

Throughout her life, Ms. Rosebush took great pleasure in her children and grandchildren, and was proud that they had devoted themselves to the healing professions: Patricia is a Harvard-trained psychiatrist and other family members went into nursing and social work.

"She was a heck of a strong woman. She wouldn't have used this language, but she sure was a feminist before her time," Ms. Dodge says. "She saw things in the world going wrong and wanted to fix them to make the world better."

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