Adina McDonald, née Tulman, was born on June 2, 1923, to parents Julius and Adina in Volhynia, a rural region of northwest Ukraine that was then part of Poland. She was the fifth of 10 children. German speakers, they risked persecution in Poland and so jumped at the chance, offered by a group of Canadian Baptists, to emigrate. In 1927 they settled outside the village of Minitonas, Man., 500 km northwest of Winnipeg. Adina grew up on a farm, working with her parents and siblings as they grew food for the table and butchered livestock. It was pioneer living, with the Tulmans so self-sufficient they even founded the local Baptist church on the homestead.
Adina was studious—geography and history were her best subjects—and independent-minded. Unable to complete high school locally, she commuted to Swan River to finish her diploma. During the Second World War, a shortage of men led to many young women teaching in country schools, and Adina, then 19, took a class in rural Little Woody. Upon finishing normal school in Winnipeg, she returned to Minitonas as an elementary teacher. A stern disciplinarian, she nevertheless loved her students (she could be most stern with those she loved most). In summers, she made the circuit of country schools, teaching the Bible. “She just made the books of the Old Testament live,” says her sister Lydia.
When her school hired a new male teacher and began paying him double what she made, Adina washed her hands of the place, moving to Winnipeg to teach. She applied for an exchange in Scotland and wrote home often during her year teaching in Edinburgh—particularly when, wearing a green dress and gloves, she met the Queen Mother during the 1953 coronation of Elizabeth II. A few years later she quit Winnipeg again, taking a job teaching at RCAF Station Grostenquin in northeast France. She took every spare moment to travel, even visiting long-lost relatives in Germany. In her second year she met Frank Rouvier, an academic and concert violinist also teaching on base. Shortly after they married—Adina was 39, Frank was 52—they settled in Kamloops, B.C., then in Surrey.
Subsequent to Frank’s death from cancer in 1981, Adina focused on her work and on gardening, a favourite pastime. Not long after, she met Hugh McDonald, newly retired from GMC, through a gardening club; he offered to drive Adina to her sister’s in Kelowna on his way to Edmonton. When he suffered a heart attack outside Penticton, Adina took the wheel, rushing him to hospital. “After that we were friendly,” says Hugh, who’d recently lost his wife in a car accident. “I never thought for a minute we would get married, but at the same time we did.” After 42 years of teaching, Adina also retired; she and Hugh set up house on a large lot in Surrey, cultivating fruit and nut trees, vegetables, tomatoes and roses. She was fastidious about preparing healthy fare, and kept fit working the garden and walking. In winters they travelled endlessly—to Australia, China, to arid Yuma, Ariz., by RV, even as far as Antarctica on one of 15 cruises. When Hugh’s health kept him home, Adina went solo, seeing Norway, then India in the same year; she was 81.
Three years ago, Adina complained she was unwell, and she and Hugh moved into a home. It did not work out—too few veggies at dinner, too little independence—and against Hugh’s better judgment Adina found them a suite in White Rock. She immediately set about looking for volunteer work. Told she was too old by the hospitals, she showed up at a local women’s centre and, insisting she be called “Dee,” offered to chop vegetables. What began as informal help became a part-time job; Adina assumed the role of head chef on Fridays. She told her boss, Lyn Reynolds, that she was 82, and then just shrugged when a routine criminal background check showed she was 85. Wherever she went, she walked, no matter the weather. Once, during heavy rainfall, Lyn insisted on driving her. “No, I’ve got to walk, you’ve got to keep walking, you’ve got to keep fit,” Adina told her. Somehow, she had willed herself well. Attending a fashion contest put on by the centre, she won in a black dress preserved in her closet since 1957. Asked if her undergarments were also period, Adina flashed her garters.
She was on foot again on Oct. 28 and heading for the Safeway when she hit the crosswalk button and stepped into the street. Paramedics, who arrived after Adina was struck by a Honda Civic, cut through her coat. Lyn, who ran from the nearby women’s centre, called to her. “She said to me, ‘They cut my coat,’ and I said, ‘Don’t worry dear, we will buy you a new one,’ ” she says. Adina, who was 86, died the next day. A 77-year-old woman has been charged under the Motor Vehicle Act in connection with the incident.