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One man’s continuing quest to honour humanitarian Dr. Lotta Hitschmanova

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In honour of Dr. Lotta Hitschmanova

David Rain wants Canada to celebrate the work of a prominent humanitarian whose public-service announcements were ubiquitous on Canadian airwaves from the 1950s to 1970s

Dr. Lotta Hitschmanova at the Unitarian Service Committee offices on 56 Sparks St. in Ottawa.

The passion that others might bestow on their local hockey team or favourite singer or movie star, David Rain dedicates it to a woman he has never met, an idiosyncratic workaholic who spoke English with an accent and was never seen without her custom-made uniform.

The late Lotta Hitschmanova, who died in 1990, is no longer a household name, but she once was a prominent humanitarian whose public-service announcements were ubiquitous on Canadian airwaves from the 1950s to 1970s.

Mr. Rain, an Ottawa retiree, is a former staffer at the international development agency that Dr. Hitschmanova founded in 1945, the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada.

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In recent years, Mr. Rain has given 20 to 30 talks across Canada about Dr. Hitschmanova. He has campaigned unsuccessfully to have her featured on the new $10 bill.

He has argued that the USC Canada head office – at 56 Sparks St. in Ottawa, an address made famous because Dr. Hitschmanova always mentioned it in her TV and radio spots – should be the site of a centre or museum to celebrate Canada's role in humanitarian assistance.

A plaque honouring Dr. Hitschmanova at the USC offices in Ottawa.

And now, for 2018, Mr. Rain wants to campaign to have Dr. Hitschmanova commemorated on a postage stamp.

Clyde Sanger, a retired journalist who wrote a 1986 biography of Dr. Hitschmanova titled Lotta and the Unitarian Service Committee Story, said he was impressed with how Mr. Rain had become so devoted about preserving her memory.

"He's never met her but he got caught up and I think it's wonderful. … I admire him for it."

To Mr. Rain, Dr. Hitschmanova, a Czech journalist who came to Canada as a refugee from the Nazis, played a key role in making Canadians care about international development and helping asylum seekers.

Dr. Hitschmanova had a shrewd understanding of mass communications. Her uniform, which added to her authority when she was on field trips, also made her recognizable throughout Canada. Through her fundraising appeals, Canadians heard about milk distribution for hungry children in Bangladesh, rehab programs for polio patients in Vietnam and irrigation projects in India.

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Growing up in Ottawa in the 1950s, the singer Bruce Cockburn, for example, remembered that Dr. Hitschmanova made an impression on him when she spoke to his Grade 5 class at Broadview Public School. Mr. Cockburn would later donate royalties from his first album to the Unitarian Service Committee. "My support for USC was and is ongoing," he said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail.

Mr. Rain, who was raised in Vancouver in the 1960s, often heard Dr. Hitschmanova on radio or television.

"She was so striking. She had a Czech accent, she wore a uniform and she was talking about something totally different: people who were struggling somewhere in the world. At that time, Canada was pretty provincial," Mr. Rain recalled.

"To have somebody come in and say, 'Hey, you should be connected to people far away,' that's a pretty unusual message, and a really powerful message."

Mr. Rain had degrees in English and law but, itching to live overseas, joined the CUSO International development agency.

David Rain has made it a personal crusade to honour Dr. Hitschmanova.

He spent a decade in Tanzania, teaching, co-ordinating rural development projects and earning a master's degree in development studies at the University of Dar es Salaam. "A lot of what Lotta said started to make sense to me," he said.

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He returned to Canada in the 1990s and spent the next 22 years as a program co-ordinator and fundraiser at USC Canada.

After he retired from USC Canada two years ago, the 65-year-old Mr. Rain kept busy volunteering for the Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization, an agency that helps re settle newcomers.

"Since Lotta was a refugee herself, I very much feel that my current work sort of completes the circle, moving from international development work to helping newcomers to Canada."

Mr. Rain had campaigned for Dr. Hitschmanova to be featured on the Bank of Canada's new $10 note.

Dr. Hitschmanova made it onto a list of 12 iconic women being considered by the central bank, which eventually picked the civil rights activist Viola Desmond.

So now, Mr. Rain is thinking about postage stamps. The selection of a new stamp design is a process that takes up to two years following a submission from the public to Canada Post's stamp advisory committee.

Mr. Rain wants to post a petition and gather support to nominate Dr. Hitschmanova to the stamp selection process.

"I hope to make this a 2018 project of mine, and see where it goes."

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