Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Force of nature unheralded, unforgettable

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I was on a beach in 2002 when I came upon a Free Press article heralding the latest Order of the Buffalo Hunt honourees -- eight men, eight mugshots, neatly lined up in their business suits.

I remember thinking how bizarre it was no women had been deemed worthy of the province's highest honour. They couldn't find a single female? Really? How does that happen?

Is it that women shy away from the spotlight, that we can't or won't put ourselves forward for this sort of thing -- or that we somehow don't consider one of our own worthy?

If the latter's the case, I thought, then it was time to do something about it.

The first woman I thought of was Thora Cooke.

Then 77, Thora was an icon to me.

Co-founder of the non-profit Western Canada Pictorial Index, a treasure trove of over 60,000 images.

The first female member of the Winnipeg Press Club.

A passionate Prairie historian and archivist who encouraged and contributed to dozens of articles and books and documentaries, particularly as Manitoba celebrated its centennial year. When I first met her in 1997, she was still the director of the index, and one of the coolest women around.

A spunky, witty Icelander who could trade quips with the best of them, Thora laughed when I said I was going to put her name forward for both the Buffalo Hunt and an Order of Canada. She said it would never happen.

And she was right. It never did.

Thora Cooke died Saturday at the age of 87. The province has lost one of its greatest fans.

I still have the official letters from the legislature and Rideau Hall, acknowledging receipt of the nominations and promising to study the worthiness of my candidate. Despite the fact Thora had support from the likes of Sen. Mira Spivak and Winnipeg icon Kathleen Richardson, despite all the work she'd done for her community, she somehow never made the cut.

She'd always been an outsider. Thora Gudrun Sigurdson grew up in Winnipeg's West End, a precocious bookworm who only spoke Icelandic at home for her first years. She didn't learn English until she started school.

She felt like an outsider when she married and became a stay-at-home mom in River Heights -- on "pill hill" with the other doctors' wives. A devoted mom of two, she yearned for more intellectual stimulation and suffered in an increasingly unhappy marriage. When she finally signed up for some university courses in the 1960s, they changed her life.

She regained her self-esteem and independence, taking a job as a member of Winnipeg's Social Planning Council for three years before founding her own company, Info Research in 1969. She served on many boards, from the Contemporary Dancers to the Actors' Showcase, to the Manitoba Historical Society.

But she became society's ultimate outsider when she fell in love with the late Eric Wells, then the "best-loved journalist in town," according to Allan Fotheringham. Wells was editor of the Winnipeg Tribune, and a National Newspaper Award-winner, the brother of radio sportscaster Cactus Jack Wells. He was also married.

The two of them ended up spending Eric's last years together; intellectually and emotionally a perfect match. Interestingly, when Wells died in 1993 there was no mention of Thora Cooke or the historical work they had collaborated on over the years -- despite the fact she was still director of the collection. Instead, only Wells is credited with "founding" the index Cooke would run for 20 years in total, first at the University of Winnipeg and later in the Exchange District.

The index was in fact a labour of love for both of them. They travelled all across Manitoba and Saskatchewan for years, collecting photos and material for the archives.

It was a decade when many communities were celebrating their centennials. Cooke's passion for history and her infectious enthusiasm encouraged many amateur historians to chronicle their own past, including my grandmother, Emma Ringstrom, who published a history of Riding Mountain National Park.

Emma loved Thora, and so did my sister and I when we met years later. You couldn't resist her. She was so radiant and full of fun.

She had an astounding memory. She'd study a photo with a magnifying glass and detect not only the city or street of the image but the date it was taken -- from such forensics as clothing, hairstyles, vehicles, lampposts. Often she'd know the name of the photographer.

Thora never said much to me about her relationship with Wells. I suspect it was a bit of a scandal in its time. But anyone who might have questioned her character didn't know her very well. Those years they had together were the happiest of her life. In fact, the reason I met her was because she had kept all of Eric's columns and was hoping to persuade someone to publish them for posterity.

Instead, I chose to be Thora's champion, her Boswell. Neither of us succeeded.

Eric's colleagues, in the end, did a fine job commemorating his career, his formidable journalistic legacy, his historical work. Thora's legacy, though, was effectively expunged.

I remember calling her in a panic one night from the Free Press. We were about to go to press with an In Memoriam year-ender that was virtually all men. "Didn't any interesting women die this year?"

She burst out laughing. "You should know this by now," she said. "Even women's obituaries are modest."

As it turned out, Thora's obit Feb. 14 was modest, too. She faded cruelly in her final years, suffering from Alzheimer's in Toronto where few knew her. But in her prime, Thora was a force of nature, and that's how I will remember her -- striding down Ellice in a black cape and boots, strong and beautiful and fiercely intelligent. She joins a pantheon of women who never make the history books.

But those who loved her -- and we are many -- will not forget.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 15, 2012 A11

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