When you envision women trailblazers in Manitoba — women who have made history — you may immediately think of politicians or judges or academics who have made impressive contributions toward the province’s development.
You would not be wrong, of course. Many professional women have been integral to the progress of Manitoba.
But in advance of the 150th anniversary celebration of Manitoba becoming a province, it’s important to acknowledge the hard work of women who perhaps didn’t hold the professional degrees, but held something more intangible, a bit harder to nail down.
These women aren’t part of the "official history" of the province. They aren’t any of the names in textbooks students are forced to memorize along with historical dates and locations.
Instead, they are the women who worked hard with elbow grease, determination and community spirit and tried to make their city and this province the best it could be.
Mary Kelekis was one of those trailblazers, in spades. Her hard work and commitment to her family’s iconic business near the corner of Redwood and Main ensured the success of a restaurant famous for shoestring fries and hotdogs. But her reach went far beyond the diner in Winnipeg’s North End.
When the diner shut down in 2013 after 81 years in business, Kelekis told reporters: "I’m ready. I’ve put in 70 years, from the time I was in high school. But it’s been a wonderful 70 years."
Amazing how a humble eatery could command such a following, but as the Winnipeg landmark prepared to shut down, people from all over Manitoba — and beyond — made a pilgrimage for a final hotdog with "the works" or a Yaleburger and some of those glorious fries, and to give the familiar face behind the counter a fond farewell.
Kelekis grew up in the North End and started working in her father Chris’s restaurant at an early age along with her five sisters, Chryse, Sophie, Evelyn, Isabel and Becky, and her brother Leo.
Eventually, she became the owner. In a Reddit post, one of her grand-nephews said Kelekis made a point of hiring young people from the North End and ensured they were equipped with an understanding of a good work ethic so they could make their way in the world.
Take Garth Riley, for example. He grew up eating at C. Kelekis Restaurant when he was a teenager and started working as a busboy close to 60 years ago, only to be fired because of his attitude. He was hired back after being taught a lesson about working under pressure and treating customers like they were family. Riley credits the business acumen he learned at the restaurant that helped him become a senior vice-president of a Toronto medical supply company.
Mary Kelekis was a proud supporter of Daniel McIntyre Collegiate Institutein the West Endand she worked hard to establish an alumni club with lifetime friends from high school days. She was also a dedicated member of St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church and she participated in the Ladies Philoptochos Society for many years.
Former mayor Stephen Juba asked Kelekis to become one of the founders of Folklorama when it began in 1970 to celebrate Manitoba’s centennial. The two-week cultural event feeds and entertains thousands of Winnipeggers, Manitobans and visitors every August.
In 2000, Kelekis was awarded the Order of Manitoba, the province’s highest honour, which recognizes individuals who have demonstrated excellence and achievement.
And in 2002, she was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal to commemorate the monarch’s 50th year on the throne. A decade later, she received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.
She served on the Misericordia Hospital Foundation board for more than 10 years, something her family said gave her tremendous pride. The foundation presented her with an Angel Award in 2013.
Kelekis ran the family business at a time when women were not expected to be in the workplace, let alone be in charge. She moved beyond her business to help others and volunteered her time and her expertise to transform two weeks in August into a multicultural holiday favourite for many. She found time to cheer on her favourite Winnipeg Jets and Blue Bombers and ensured her nieces and nephews could enjoy season tickets with her.
When Mary Kelekis died at the age of 94 on Sept. 3, Winnipeg lost one of its biggest boosters. She was a true trailblazer.
The Nellie McCliung Foundation is looking for female Manitoba trailblazers in advance of the province's 150 anniversary — and they want to hear from you. Nominate a trailblazer and share her story about show she made the province great at wfp.to/trailblazers