Canada's Stories

‘Choosing a way of life was easy’

Elizabeth Cooney taught school during the Depression

Elizabeth “Lily” Cooney dedicated her life to education, especially after losing her husband early. Here she reminisces about life as a school teacher on the prairies during the Depression—and how that led to a new career in New York City.

Even if it was the ’20s, which was not an economically profitable time, Medicine Hat was a happy place to grow up. It was our playground. You went from one end to the other and had friends all over the place. The street was yours.

My dad had been lured from Hastings, England, by the CPR. My mother saw an ad in the newspaper for a milliner. It was at the boarding house that she met my father.

    Times never got any better. Wages were terribly low, but everyone seemed affected in one way or another so you just grinned and bore it. Choosing a way of life was easy compared to today. We had three choices: teacher, nurse or stenographer.

    I chose to be a teacher and went to normal school [teachers college] in Calgary in ’34. My salary was $600 per year. I taught on the prairie. That was a culture shock. These people really had nothing. A number of them came from the States. There was nothing for them when they got here—maybe a derelict house. They were wonderful children, though. The school was definitely their TV, their radio. It meant everything to them.

    When I look back, I marvel at what these kids did accomplish. There was one boy who was outstanding, and he became quite ill. His family had just come from Saskatchewan. They moved on and on until they came to northern Alberta. He finished his education, became a lawyer, and then became the attorney general of Alberta.

    I taught in the country for 6½ years, moving to different schools. My first school was in Bowell. I don’t think Bowell is on the map anymore. Another place was Alderson. It had a bank, which said something, and a wooden sidewalk, but I don’t think it’s on the map anymore either.

    I didn’t have a family. I was married for four years and then my husband had a heart attack. He was a company sergeant major, Frank Cooney. He was a wonderful man, but I lost him quickly. That’s when I poured myself into teaching.

    I got referred by a professor at summer school in Edmonton who had come from New York. New York City had always thrilled me. She said, “Write a letter to this woman at Hunter College.” So I did. Immediately, she said, “Come! We have a suite for you.” I had no idea what I was getting into. I was in charge of home management for graduating students. And I just loved it. I was accepted at New York University while I was at Hunter, and I was working toward a master’s degree. That was the ivory tower, though. I could see these people were not going to leave. I didn’t see the sky. I wanted that great big blue sky and the horizon.

    I retired when I was 64. I was invited to be a member of the board of Calgary Meals on Wheels—Calgary was growing like a weed at that time—and pretty soon I was president. And then, one day, I was nominated to be woman of the year. They have a little plaque on the wall of city hall. When I look back on it, I had a charmed life in many ways. — As told to Luc Rinaldi

    Elizabeth Cooney died April 6, 2016. She was 101.

    (Portrait by Chris Bolin)

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