December 10, 2018

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Reign of the Ice Queen

Winnipeg figure-skating sensation Mary Rose Thacker dominated national and North American competitions in the 1930s and early '40s

In the 1930s and ’40s, Mary Rose Thacker was Winnipeg’s “Ice Queen”, a figure skating phenomenon who stood atop national and North American podiums. As with many athletes of her generation, international glory was dashed due to the Second World War.

Mary Rose was born in April 1922, the youngest of three children of Lillian and George Thacker of Grosvenor Avenue. Her father was a grain company president.

The Thackers were a sporting family, active in summer and winter activities. When Mary Rose was three-years-old she was enrolled in one of her mother’s favourite sports, figure skating, at the Winnipeg Skating Club and soon began turning heads due to her natural abilities.

In 1929, the Winnipeg Winter Club was formed and created a skating club of its own. Mary Rose was a charter member and instantly became its star. Through the 1930s her solo performances were a main attraction at the club’s carnival, a gala event held at the Amphitheatre each March to celebrate the end of the skating season.

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In the 1930s and ’40s, Mary Rose Thacker was Winnipeg’s "Ice Queen", a figure skating phenomenon who stood atop national and North American podiums. As with many athletes of her generation, international glory was dashed due to the Second World War.

Mary Rose was born in April 1922, the youngest of three children of Lillian and George Thacker of Grosvenor Avenue. Her father was a grain company president.

University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections</p><p>Mary Rose Thacker shows fine form during an outdoor performance in the late 1930s.</p></p>

University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections

Mary Rose Thacker shows fine form during an outdoor performance in the late 1930s.

The Thackers were a sporting family, active in summer and winter activities. When Mary Rose was three-years-old she was enrolled in one of her mother’s favourite sports, figure skating, at the Winnipeg Skating Club and soon began turning heads due to her natural abilities.

In 1929, the Winnipeg Winter Club was formed and created a skating club of its own. Mary Rose was a charter member and instantly became its star. Through the 1930s her solo performances were a main attraction at the club’s carnival, a gala event held at the Amphitheatre each March to celebrate the end of the skating season.

One month after the 1930 carnival, George Thacker died of a heart attack at 48, leaving Lillian to raise three children under the age of twelve. Thankfully, his estate had not been too badly ravaged by the stock market crash and he left enough to see that the children were looked after and that Lillian could attend full-time to Mary Rose’s budding career.

That career kicked into high gear in 1935 when, at the age of twelve, Mary Rose became the Winter Club’s senior ladies skating champion, a title she would hold for the next seven years. The following year in Toronto she placed second at the Canadian Junior Figure Skating Championships. In 1937, she returned east and took top honours.

The press lauded Mary Rose for her almost perfect technical program and coolness under pressure, which would be her trademarks throughout the rest of her career.

The young skater received competent coaching from the Winter Club’s professionals, but to compete on the international level she would need additional instruction, and that meant she and her mother would spend a great deal of time away from home.

From August to October 1937, Mary Rose and her mother went to London, England, to take lessons at the Westminster Ice Club, one of Europe’s premier figure skating clubs. Her instructor was Howard Nicholson who had coached Norway’s Sonja Henie, the ten-time world champion and three-time Olympic women’s gold medallist.

University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections</p><p>Mary Rose Thackers mother, Lillian, was her constant companion throughout her amateur skating career. The two are seen here together in February 1941.</p>

University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections

Mary Rose Thackers mother, Lillian, was her constant companion throughout her amateur skating career. The two are seen here together in February 1941.

The following October it was off to the New York Skating Club. At the end of her stay, Mary Rose tested with the United States Figure Skating Association and received a gold medal, a rare achievement for someone so young.

The 1939 Canadian Figure Skating Championships were held in late January in Toronto. Despite being the second youngest entrant in a field of ten, Mary Rose gave near flawless performances over the two days of events to become the national women’s senior champion. A first for a Western Canadian skater.

Winnipeggers barely had time to digest the good news when the following weekend, also in Toronto, it was Mary Rose’s turn at the North American Figure Skating Championships. On Feb. 4, 1939, she edged out the favourite, two-time reigning American singles and pairs champion Joan Tozzer of Boston.

Mary Rose returned home the following week to a hero’s welcome.

At a banquet in her honour at the Winter Club the following night, which included the Mayor John Queen and Premier John Bracken as guests, club president George McIvor said that it was "… the happiest occasion in the club’s history. Not on account of the fact that two notable victories have been won by a member of our club, but because they were won by Mary Rose."

L. B. Foote / Winnipeg Free Press Archives</p><p>Winnipeg figure skating champion Mary Rose Thacker at the CNR Station in 1942.</p>

L. B. Foote / Winnipeg Free Press Archives

Winnipeg figure skating champion Mary Rose Thacker at the CNR Station in 1942.

Some of the hundreds of congratulatory telegrams received, including ones from Prime Minister Mackenzie King and Governor General John Buchan, were read aloud and the young champion was made an honorary life member of the club.

Despite the amount of attention in local papers, not a lot was revealed about the Thackers’ personal lives. The diminutive Mary Rose was very shy and a number of reporters noted questions posed to the young girl were answered with a bashful smile or three-word answer. Lillian Thacker did much of the talking and kept the answers all about skating.

A few nuggets of the girl’s personal life can be found in various columns by Lillian "Jimmy" Coo, a journalist who followed the local women’s sports scene for the Winnipeg Free Press.

By all accounts, Mary Rose was an excellent student, taught by tutors and at private school. She had an aptitude for languages and was able to speak very good French, German and Spanish by her early teens.

In the summer, when the Thackers did not need to be at the rink at 5 a.m. every morning to practice, Mary Rose enjoyed horseback riding and swimming. She was also a pianist, sometimes accompanying the Knox Church choir at recitals.

Lillian 'Jimmy' Coo's sports column Cherchez la Femme, ran in the Winnipeg Free Press from 1937 to 1942 and 1946 to 47.</p>

Lillian 'Jimmy' Coo's sports column Cherchez la Femme, ran in the Winnipeg Free Press from 1937 to 1942 and 1946 to 47.

Mary Rose’s victories in early 1939 assured her a place on the Canadian Olympic team for the Winter Games scheduled for February 1940 at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. In June, the Thackers returned to London to work with coach Howard Nicholson.

Training came to an abrupt halt when war was declared and the Olympic games were cancelled. The Thackers returned to Canada in late September aboard the Duchess of York. While en route, their convoy encountered a German U-Boat and passengers watched as the enemy ship was destroyed.

Mary Rose spent much of the 1940 carnival season travelling around the country, skating at events in Toronto and Montreal before ending up in Ottawa for the summer to be coached by Czech skater Otto Gold, who worked out of the Minto Skating Club. Later that year, it was back to New York where her London coach, Nicholson, ended up during the war years.

In February 1941, Mary Rose again took the Canadian seniors women’s crown, edging out a young upstart named Barbara Ann Scott who was five years her junior. Scott also trained under Gold at the Minto Skating Club. The following week, it was on to Philadelphia where she repeated as North American women’s champion.

Mary Rose’s final title came at the end of January 1942, when the Winnipeg Winter Club was hosting the Canadian figure skating championships. She had spent the previous three months in Ottawa preparing and once again beat out Barbara Ann Scott.

University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections</p><p>Winnipeg figure skater Mary Rose Thacker won multiple national and North American titles during the 1930s and early '40s.</p></p>

University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections

Winnipeg figure skater Mary Rose Thacker won multiple national and North American titles during the 1930s and early '40s.

After the victory, Mary Rose was asked about her future. She insisted that she had no plans to turn pro. As for future titles, she told reporters she was just taking her career "one year at a time."

Coach Otto Gold, though, was very optimistic about the young skater’s career, saying, "Mary Rose is blessed with much natural talent but her greatest asset is her capacity for work. Her school figures are almost perfect, but her free skating can be improved still more." He predicted many more championship wins on the horizon and noted Sonja Henie, whom he had coached at times, was able to turn her successful figure skating career into a lucrative Hollywood movie contract.

Despite the sunny outlook, world events in 1942 brought Mary Rose’s career to a halt.

Early that year it was announced that the 1944 Winter Olympic Games were cancelled. A few months later, the Canadian and North American senior championships were put on hold for the duration of the war.

Mary Rose was nineteen and at the peak of her career but found herself with nowhere to compete in the foreseeable future. In late 1942 she announced that she was retiring from competition.

Winnipeg Tribune archives</p><p>Mary Rose Thackers solo performances were a highlight of the Winter Clubs annual year-end carnivals throughout the 1930s and early '40s.</p>

Winnipeg Tribune archives

Mary Rose Thackers solo performances were a highlight of the Winter Clubs annual year-end carnivals throughout the 1930s and early '40s.

After a brief professional career with a touring company, Mary Rose settled in Vancouver in 1945 and became a coach at the Vancouver Skating Club. In the early 1950s she married a school principal from Victoria and began her long association with the Victoria Skating Club.

In 1971, Free Press reporter Reyn Davis contacted Mary Rose to talk about her life and the international career that never happened.

Mary Rose reminisced fondly about her Winnipeg years and the celebratory homecomings she received after each championship win. As for not having the chance to compete internationally, she replied, "The reasons for a war seemed as silly then as they do today. Missing the Olympics didn’t bother me. The war did."

Mary Rose Thacker-Temple died at Victoria in August 1983 at the age of 60. She was inducted posthumously into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame, Canadian Figure Skating Hall of Fame and Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame.

Christian Cassidy explores local history on his blog, West End Dumplings.

Christian Cassidy

Christian Cassidy
Columnist

Christian Cassidy believes that every building has a great story - or ten - to tell.

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