A Life's Story
January 22, 2022
Steadfast and dedicated
Small but mighty, Hetty Walker was embodiment of civic pride, commitment
By: Tyler Searle
Sometime during the Second World War, young Hetty Walker crouched under a dining table with a kitchen pot covering her head. Her parents and sisters clustered around her in the same position, clutching each other and quivering against a barrage of thunderous roars.
Bombs were falling on their home city of Tilburg, Netherlands.
Walker would recount this story, and many others, to friends and family throughout her life. The experience shaped who she was, as it did for many who lived through the war.
Walker died of ovarian cancer Oct. 23, 2021, at 85.
She was born Nov. 21, 1935, into a time of fortitude, practicality and accountability. Historians would later dub her generation the traditionalists.
Walker embodied those characteristics, eldest daughter Dawn Walker says.
Her mother was an ambitious, compassionate and levelheaded woman whose unwavering work ethic and commitment to civic responsibility carried her through a storied life, Dawn says.
She lived in three countries, dedicated decades to public service, and led a Prairie city through the Flood of the Century.
Walker came to Canada with her parents and three sisters, lived in lumber camps as a young bride, and started a bait-and-tackle business before moving to Pembina, N.D., in 1970.
“I certainly couldn’t keep up with her,” Dawn says, laughing at her mother’s tenacity.
By all accounts, Walker was small but mighty; a lean woman with surprising strength and a penchant for practical jokes.
“(When we first met), she was out in front of her building, and she had bubble wrap spread across her driveway, and she was jumping up and down popping the bubbles on it,” friend Debbie Weigel said. “It was hilarious.”
The pair worked together at Pembina Parcel Service, a business Walker founded and ran from her home.
Roughly 11 kilometres separates Pembina from the Manitoba community of Emerson. The border crossing is open 24 hours a day, and it is a popular stop for Manitobans to fill their gas tanks and buy duty-free items.
In 1985, a Canadian friend asked Walker if he could order a package to her home and later cross the border to pick it up; she agreed, word spread and soon more people began requesting the service.
“My husband and I came home to visit, and we walked in the porch of the house… (it) was full of packages,” Dawn said. “(We) said, ‘Why don’t we help you clean out the garage and the shop and set it up in there?’”
And so a business was born.
Walker ran it by the honour system in those days. She would leave an envelope on every parcel, asking recipients to deposit $5 in payment when they came for the goods.
The business grew. Parcels of all shapes and sizes began pouring in, including an astounding amount of car tires, Dawn said.
“I guess tires in Canada must be very expensive because boy, she got the tires,” she said. “She would get her thighs under these tires, and she would just lift them like you wouldn’t believe.”
It was years before Walker could convince her mother to modernize the business and update her prices. Walker’s husband, Dean Leas, used his IT background to create a database to track her customers, and Hetty updated her fee to $10 for larger parcels.
Hetty’s simple favour blossomed into a booming parcel service with more than 13,000 customers. By the time she retired in 2012, she was receiving more than 200 packages a day, Walker said.
Her friendly demeanour and dedication to customer service made the business a success. People wanted their packages, yes, but they also just wanted to see Hetty. Years after her retirement, customers still stopped by the house to visit, Weigel said.
“She used to always make a joke about how when she started the business, her first year she doubled her clientele… I’d say, ‘Oh, you went up to two?’ and she would say, ‘Yes, I did’,” Weigel said. “I always hoped that I would have half the energy that woman had.”
Her efforts inspired an entire cottage industry. At least seven businesses have replicated her model in Pembina, and there are numerous others in neighbouring border communities, Weigel said.
Life was not always kind or easy for Hetty, but Dawn Walker and Weigel agree she faced adversity with composure.
A fine example is when Hetty stared down the Flood of the Century. It was April of 1997 when she patrolled Pembina’s concrete levee and earthen dikes, searching for leaks.
Unprecedented snowfall and soaring temperatures had caused the Red River to swell and surge. Floodwaters threatened to spill from its banks and swallow the community whole.
Some 125 km south, much of Grand Forks was already underwater. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cautioned the people of Pembina against hope, urging them to evacuate their modest border town.
Meteorologists at the time predicted floodwaters would crest at around 58 feet, enough to overcome Pembina’s 57-foot concrete dike.
Hetty and a core group of residents and officials stood defiant.
“As the story goes, there were about six of them, and they were just about ready to turn off the lights. They just said, ‘No. We’re not going to do that’,” said Charles Hart, a longtime local and Fort Pembina Historical Society member.
Not to be deterred, the flood defenders enlisted the help of a local construction company to fortify the dike with sandbags and plywood.
“The future of that little town was at stake,” Hart said. “They worked all night and built the dike up. Hetty was part of that inner core. It was not only her, but it was the city fathers, and she was one of them.”
The reinforced wall, now four feet higher, held against the tide — sparing Pembina’s homes from the waters of the rushing Red.
Hetty was an integral part of not only saving the town but ensuring its future, Hart added.
At the time of the flood, Hetty had already dedicated more than a decade of service to Pembina, serving on city council from 1984 until 1990 when she took over as mayor. She held office until the year 2000. In 2002, she became a Pembina County commissioner, relieving her husband Charles Walker, who formerly held the position. Hetty remained a commissioner until the end of her life.
“When she was mayor, they paved the streets, and built a new water plant, and did sewer repair; many, many things that she was involved in improving the community,” Hart said.
Her sense of civic pride and critical eye made her well suited for public office, Dawn said.
“My mom liked to process information, and then as she processed, she could make a decision. She didn’t ever like to jump to a conclusion or jump to a decision,” she said.
Throughout her public service career, Hetty maintained her business and served on countless community groups, initiatives, and projects. Her efforts earned her dozens of accolades and awards.
The North Dakota American Auxiliary Legion once named her the Woman of the Year, and the Red River Basin Commission gave her the Water Management Leadership award in 2016.
Husband Charles Walker, sisters Mabel Koch and Yvonne Silver, and parents Jan and Mabel Koch predeceased her. She is survived by sister Paulien Bainbridge, daughters Karen Walker, Laurie Shulz, Dawn Walker, Shelly Bjerk, and son John, as well as seven grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
“I would like people to remember what a kind, generous and talented woman she was as well as having a strong work ethic and civic pride. She loved her children and made many sacrifices for us as well. Teaching us the importance of pursuing our dreams and instilling her work ethic in us. I couldn’t have asked for a better mom,” Dawn said.