Keeping the home fires burning at the Olds Legion

Photo by Sandy Bexon Supplied

100 year-old Betty Reader was thrilled to receive a handsewn Quilt of Valour from the Legion. “It means a lot to me when other people know what we did in service during the war. So many of us are old and passing on – there’s not a lot of personal connection anymore to that time in history.”

Sheila Peters has dedicated much of her life to the Legion, which is doubly admirable since she was never a member of the Armed Forces herself. She was compelled by a deep sense of gratitude for the war Veterans she knew, including her brother-in-law and her uncle. Now Sheila has been part of the Olds Legion for 30 years, and President for the past two years.

“My husband Reg and I are both involved and our feelings run very deep,” said Sheila. “Everything we do is for the Veterans. They all have a history linking them, no matter the age or the conflict they served in. We have Vets who served in Afghanistan and we even have a handful of surviving World War II Vets. The Legion provides an important connection for all of them. It’s a place where everyone understands how your experiences shaped you, and they all show great care and compassion for one another. Plus, people have fun at the Legion!”

Sheila was raised in Olds and began her long caretaking career at the Olds Hospital when she was 14. She moved down to Calgary to help prepare the Foothills Hospital facility to open in 1966, and then moved with Reg wherever his career took them. They finally settled back in Olds in 1981 and she worked in the Caretaking Dept of Chinook’s Edge School Division for many years – cleaning the schools she attended as a child! She spent a number of years as Coordinator of the full Caretaking Dept, before retiring a few years ago.

“Since I retired from Chinook’s Edge, I spend 10 or 12 hours a day at the Legion depending on what’s happening. Both Reg and I volunteer at banquets – taking care of all the steps to coordinate the large events. Cooking, set-up, dishes and cleaning at the end – sometimes for hundreds of guests. It’s all volunteers who work for the banquets and funeral teas, and many of us are getting older and finding it difficult to keep up,” said Sheila.

As with Legion branches nationwide, Olds is experiencing a small and dedicated group of committed volunteers who are rapidly approaching the time when they want to free themselves from work obligations. Many are well past that time but don’t feel they can step back in good conscience when there aren’t a lot of people stepping up to fill the roles.

“We’ve strategized a number of different ways to ensure we can keep offering what our members are needing from us, and we’ve even looked at moving from volunteer roles to paid positions,” said Sheila. “We’ve opened up employment opportunities to the general public and you don’t have to be related to an armed service personnel to apply. But a lot of service groups are feeling this same problem – I’m not sure if younger people realize how much these groups do for the community.

“We are trying new approaches to bring different people and their different ideas forward so the Legion can continue to be impactful. It’s been very rewarding and I’d like to see it remain active, but we are seeing so many smaller branches that aren’t able to continue because of a lack of volunteers. To carry on with strength, we need a core group of volunteers who can lead the way forward. Right now, I work longer and harder than I did for wages. It’s an important cause, but we’re getting worn out. I just don’t want to let the Legion down.”

It is mainly seniors who attend the Legion’s activities, and not all of them have served in the Armed Forces. The Legion has become an important organization for the community in general, but most importantly for the original purpose: to provide a voice and give support to Veterans. For Betty Reader, the oldest surviving WWII Veteran at the Olds Legion, that is vital.

“I loved spending my time at the Legion and I went every day before I fell in November,” said Betty, who will celebrate her 100th birthday on Valentine’s Day. “Everybody is so friendly, it’s always nice to go.”

Betty was born in 1924 and she married her late husband, Jack, in 1940 when she was only 16 years old. Soon after, Jack was sent for duty overseas for five years during the Second World War. Betty was a member of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps and was assigned secretarial work in Canada.

“I wanted to be overseas because that’s where my husband was and I wanted to be with him. I got my shots twice to go and I went on draft to be ready, but I never made it overseas. I remember those years so well – you don’t forget that,” said Betty, who grew up in Winnipeg.

After the war, Betty and Jack returned to Manitoba and lived on a farm near Fork River for 20 years. They had no power, no running water and they bathed in the river. After much hard work and a couple of crop failures, they moved to Winnipeg and took on various roles. Betty worked as a lab tech until she retired at 60.

Through a series of life events, particularly when Jack passed away 35 years ago, Betty came to live in Torrington where she remained until 2017. As she became more elderly, she moved into a lodge in Olds and most recently to a care facility in Innisfail. She carries on with the longtime dedicated support from her friends Al and Giselle. The husband and wife team call three times a day and makes the 45-minute drive to visit every other day.

“My father was a Veteran – he served overseas from 1939 – 45,” said Al. “He went over with the very first contingent of Canadians. Those years of sacrifice should be respected all through a person’s life. Betty and Jack were both Legion members throughout their lives. That affiliation means the world to Veterans.”