A Life's Story
September 19, 2020
Scientist, educator Paulina Miaw Jin Zillman made sure she had a sweet treat to share with her church congregation every Sunday
By: Kellen Taniguchi
Paulina Miaw Jin Zillman’s journey to Winnipeg was a long one that began in 1939 when she was born in a bomb shelter in the Chinese city of Chengdu during the Second World War.
"That was wartime throughout the region and her father was with the air force, so they moved around quite a bit during that time and there were air raids all the time. That’s why they were in a bomb shelter," says Rick Zillman, Paulina’s husband of 48 years.
She died in her sleep on March 20 at the age of 80.
She grew up in Taiwan and graduated with a bachelor of science degree in agriculture from Zhongxing University. She travelled to Canada to earn her master’s degree at the University of Saskatchewan before taking a lab position at the University of Manitoba.
"The people she was working with recommended that she do a PhD," says Zillman, 73. "They saw potential in her to do the research and she applied to do that. She had to resign her position and become a full-time student."
And that’s when they met. Zillman was working on a master’s degree in the same plant science lab where she was doing research for her PhD. They spent long days in the lab together with their other colleagues and became close.
She wasn’t done with school when she received her doctorate, beginning her 37-year teaching career in 1972. She spent the first half of her career teaching biology at St. Norbert Collegiate and finished by writing a new curriculum for a pilot Mandarin language program at Vincent Massey Collegiate.
Mandarin was important to her, and she volunteered at the Manitoba Academy of Chinese Studies for 35 years, teaching the language every Saturday morning to Grade 1 and 2 kids.
"I do remember biology class quite well and some of the interactions we had with the coursework and with her," former student Ernie Watson says.
"She put me on one of the paths I was considering and eventually took, the biology route. I think it had to do with the material and how much I enjoyed her class itself."
Watson said she was quiet but had the respect of her students. She even joined in on jokes and often shared a laugh with her students.
Zillman said his wife was busy out of the classroom, too.
"She loved doing crafts, especially Chinese knotting, knitting and crocheting," he says. "She was really an expert at all of those crafts, and she gave away just about all of her crafts to family and friends. And she loved baking and cooking, too."
She baked a cake for every Sunday service at Church of the Way, where they were members for more than 50 years.
"People ended up staying for an hour, sometimes longer, for coffee and cake after the service," Zillman says. "We really miss that now that the pandemic is here. She asked me to continue that tradition."
He says he would be around the kitchen when his wife was baking, so he learned from her and plans to bake a cake when services are able to resume.
"She was so generous and kind to everybody. For example, baking a cake for every Sunday that was just something she wanted to do. It’s not a thing a lot of people would do because they would consider it work, but she didn’t. It’s just something she enjoyed doing because she saw how much people enjoyed it," he says.
‘She always thought of others and put their needs ahead of her own and she was a very positive person too. She was thankful for the blessings she had and never took them for granted."
The couple loved to travel and went on countless trips together, but one holiday stands out.
They travelled to the province of Sabah, East Malaysia, on the island of Borneo where they climbed to the 4,100-metre summit of Mount Kinabalu.
"What really attracted her to this cruelly ambitious adventure was that there were over 100 different varieties of orchids growing wild on the slopes, so she wanted to see that," he says.
"We did it and it was an amazing adventure for us."
She loved gardening and had a photo album on her iPad of all the flowers she grew over the years.
Zillman says he originally planned for about 200 people at his wife’s memorial service, but COVID-19 put a wrench in that. The service, postponed until this week, will be at Church of the Way, but the guest list had to be cut down to 49 due to pandemic restrictions.