Margaret Elizabeth Blake was born in Vancouver on Dec. 30, 1951, to Leslie John Ward, an importer of Van Houten chocolates, and Margaret Elizabeth, a nurse. (Les had been injured as a soldier in Italy during the war, and fell for Marg as she nursed him back to health.) Margaret, who came to be known as Liz, and her elder brother John were soon old enough to find the stash of chocolates in the basement of the family home in Burnaby, B.C. Les, seeing his kids eating up his profits, decided to follow his father and grandfather before him, and began selling life insurance.
At school, Liz was an involved student, winning awards for her performance on the field hockey and track teams, dancing in school plays, and working on the yearbook. She also fit in a part-time job as a cashier at a Super-Valu, where she met Steve Blake, who worked as a bagger. Steve preferred packing groceries at Liz’s till, he says, because “she was so fast, and she made you look good” in front of the boss. Struck by Liz’s “gorgeous red hair” and “beautiful, friendly smile,” he decided to ask her out.
Liz was soon too busy for dates. She’d always wanted to be a teacher (her junior yearbook entry began: “This future teacher . . . ”), and after high school began her studies in education at the University of British Columbia. But the next summer at Super-Valu, there was Steve, buying a chocolate bar at her till. The pair were engaged by the end of that summer, and married a year later. “Our parents were a little concerned,” says Steve, “because we were so young”: Liz was just 19 and Steve was 20. But “Liz and I sat in the car on top of Burnaby Mountain and figured out our budget.” To save money, the couple got creative when furnishing their first apartment: they dragged two TVs from their parents’ homes, one with sound and no picture, the other with picture but no sound, and stacked them one on top of the other.
Their budgeting worked: while still in university, Liz and Steve paid for a honeymoon to Hawaii, and a trip to Europe. Those jaunts ignited the couple’s lifelong desire to see the world. But teaching came first: after graduation, Liz began in the physical education department at Gladstone Secondary in Vancouver, and within a year, Steve also become a teacher. When it came time to think about starting a family, Steve and Liz decided they “already had a whole whack of kids” that could use looking after, says Steve. In their time off from the classroom, the couple squeezed in trips to all seven continents and 145 countries, with a long list of experiences: teaching at a Canadian Forces base in Germany, swimming the waters off Antarctica, hot air ballooning in Egypt, breakfast with Omar Sharif in Moscow—just a taste of their adventures.
In 1986, Liz moved to Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School in Vancouver, where she would teach PE for 22 years. “Mrs. Blake” dedicated herself to her students, coming in early and staying late to coach field hockey, track, and anything else no one else would volunteer to do. She encouraged every kid to be active (once spending hours teaching a Grade 8 student how to jump), and led by example: “If the kids were going for a run, she would be running, too,” says Steve. Liz also brought a healthy lunch to school every day. “She loved her fruits and vegetables, and never bought food you would just heat in the microwave,” says Steve. Liz turned down the department head position more than once; she thought it would interfere with her time with her students. Principal Andy Krawcyzk says it was this dedication that made her an obvious choice for the 2008 Premier’s Award for Teaching Excellence in Healthy Living and PE/Coaching.
At the end of the school year in 2008, and after more careful budgeting, Steve and Liz retired together in their mid-50s. Their plans included more travel, of course, but Liz was also looking forward to improving her skills on the piano: Steve had surprised her with a Steinway baby grand as a retirement gift. Just six weeks after retirement, though, Liz got a bad headache that wouldn’t go away. After several tests, she and Steve learned that she had five tumours in her brain, and cancer in her lungs (though she’d never smoked). Over the next year, in between rounds of radiation and chemo, Liz and Steve fit in a few more cruises, and a trip to Churchill, Man., to see polar bears. By late October, though, it was clear the treatments weren’t working. At the hospital, Andy stopped by after watching the girls’ field hockey team win gold in the city championships. Liz was “in and out of consciousness,” he says, “but I told her that the girls wanted her to have their medal. She smiled and just gripped it, and wouldn’t let go. It connected her to the kids, to being on the field. That’s what mattered to Liz.” Liz died in the early hours of Nov. 9, 2009. She was 57.