A Life's Story
September 05, 2020
No time for 'normal'
Imogene Williams broke rules and took risks to help people and make the world a better place
By: Sarah Lawrynuik
There are many ways friends and family would describe Imogene Williams but "normal" is not a word that would ever come up. In fact, her son Loren Williams remembers longing for normal to characterize his childhood — not, at the time, appreciating the way his mother went about things.
"We did not have a normal childhood, that’s for sure," Loren said as he chuckles at the memories.
Imogene Williams died May 24.
In a phone interview from his home in Atlanta, Loren recalls growing up with furniture that was always second-hand from friends or family. He remembers once the thermostat broke off the wall and was hanging there by a wire and his mother couldn’t be bothered to take the time or spend the money to fix it. Not because she didn’t care about her family, she simply put her energy where she thought it was best used.
"So this is how our life was. If anyone was ever in trouble, they would just come live with us. There were always just people living in our house, and sometimes it was a little weird. When I was growing up, I was just like, ‘Can’t we be normal?’"
Long after her kids left home, Williams continued hosting vagabonds, giving them a safe place to lay their heads and the promise of warmth and care from someone with a big heart. But normal wasn’t on Imogene’s radar. Even when it came to her work as a grade-school teacher, she went at it in a pragmatic way, leading with love. How things were normally done just seemed to get in the way.
"She just thought the rules did not apply to her, honestly," Loren said. "She started a breakfast food program — the first one — she just started feeding kids. And they tried to stop her. They said, ‘You can’t just feed children in school.’ And she was like, ‘Well, they’re hungry.’"
Loren recalls that when his mom was blocked from feeding kids the food she had bought or made, she changed tact and started offering cooking lessons in an attempt to find a loophole.
"She was always in trouble," he said.
During her tenure working both at R.H.G. Bonnycastle School and Dalhousie School in the Pembina Trails School Division, Williams met a fellow teacher, Allie Turnock, who ended up becoming a lifelong friend of about 40 years. Turnock recalls when Imogene tried to kick-start the school breakfast program, but it was far from the only time she ruffled feathers.
"There was no one else in the world quite like Imogene," Turnock said. "When we taught together at Dalhousie, she chained herself to a tree at one stage because they were going to cut down this forest beside the school to build a 7-Eleven and things. And she just really thought that forest should stay there."
One of her former students, Lynda Highway, remembers Imogene getting in trouble with the school’s administrators over the breakfast program after having helped two of Highway’s close friends. "If only (they) knew that she bought them bikes, too," Highway said in an email.
Highway reconnected with her former teacher after had become a mother. She recalls Imogene bringing her daughter a brown-skinned Stella doll because as she’d said, "every kid should have a doll that celebrates them."
"I remember feeling like I was the most important person every time I was in Imogene’s presence, and that she extended that same grace to my kids," Highway said.
The unusual nature of her life took hold from childhood. She was born to American parents living in the Philippines in 1931. During the Second World War, as the threat to Americans abroad rose, Imogene’s parents decided to send her to live with family in California. Her parents ended up being captured by Japanese soldiers and spent years in an internment camp.
At the end of the war, both parents and daughter were reunited in their home in Seattle, Wash., which had been in the family for generations. By the time they were brought back together, they were unrecognizable to one another. But Williams took lessons from her parents in their capacity to forgive. When the Japanese government paid settlements to those they’d captured, Imogene’s mother travelled all the way to Japan to donate the money to a local orphanage. It was a gesture that was mimicked throughout her life as both friends and family recall her propensity to hand money out who those she met who needed a hand up.
She studied microbiology in university and was even accepted into medical school but instead married and had four children — Ruth, Loren, Rebecca and Rachel. It was 1972 when the Williams family moved to Winnipeg. She continued to live here after her divorce and after her children grown and left home. But as she aged, she was pulled back towards the Seattle home that remained in the family. In 2001, she moved back to the American West Coast, which allowed her to be closer to some of her grandkids.
Imogene’s fiery attitude had, in her time in Winnipeg, led her to pitch in on provincial NDP campaigns. By the time she moved back to Seattle, she decided to become even more politically active.
"She called me up and she says, ‘Hi, I’m in Portland.’ I said, ‘What are you doing in Portland?’ And she said, ‘Oh, I’m being arraigned,’" Loren said. "She didn’t start getting arrested until her 80s," he says with a laugh.
That time, she’d been protesting the export of American coal shipments to Asia and she became somewhat of a local celebrity for her climate-change activism and fierce love of public transit.
"Imogene found her purpose in life and lived it; making the world a better place," Turnock said. "Imogene brought joy to whatever she was doing. Her generosity was legend. She put others first and made everyone she talked to feel special. There are people all over the world who called her friend, who are missing her and who are inspired to live better lives through the example of this humble woman."
Her family continues to collect memories of her life at ImogeneWilliams.com.