A Life's Story
February 04, 2023
A Guiding light for generations of Winnipeg girls
Dorothy Thom spent more than a half-century teaching Brownies to be honest and kind
By: Jen Zoratti
Those who knew and loved the feisty, big-hearted Dorothy Thom — and there were a great many who did — would have known her better as Dot. Or Dodo. Or, later, when her trio of beloved granddaughters were born, Bubbie.
Generations of girls also knew her as Tawny Owl.
Thom, who died last March at the age of 90 following a brief illness and a stroke, was a dedicated Brownie leader (known as Owls) in Winnipeg for more than a half-century. In 2002, she was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal for her outstanding contributions to Girl Guides of Canada.
“Many people — girls grown up — would see her after and they wouldn’t call her Mrs. Thom, or Dot. It would be ‘Hi, Tawny Owl!’” says her daughter, Sharon Thom.
“There were a lot of girls. My mom was active right up until maybe three or four years ago. She wasn’t coming camping, but she would still come to our meetings.”
Thom’s lifelong love of Guiding began in earnest in the late 1960s, when Sharon was a Brownie.
“I came home one night, and said that they needed a volunteer, they needed a helper, and could she come the next week?” Sharon recalls. “So she did. And then the next week, I’m getting ready for Brownies. I said, ‘Why aren’t you ready?’ And she said, ‘What, why?’ And I said, ‘Well, they need you!’
“Over 50 years later, she was still involved in that unit.”
Sharon says the Brownies, now called Embers, loved having her mom around. Though Thom was small in stature — she barely stood five feet — she had a big personality. “Everybody says she was feisty, and she was,” Sharon says.
Thom officially became a Tawny Owl in 1970. In addition to the Golden Jubilee Medal, she earned many awards and recognition from her peers for her dedication. In her later years, she became involved with Trefoil Guild, a membership group of lifelong Guiders who meet on a semi-regular basis to stay in touch with each other and the organization. Sharon and her daughters Allyson and Kara are still involved with Girl Guides of Canada. Three generations of Guides.
Thom embodied the Ember Law, the governing rule hundreds of Canadian girls — including her own — have promised they will respect. “As an Ember, I am honest and kind; I help take care of the world around me.”
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Dot Thom was born Dorothy Cooper in Winnipeg on Aug. 31, 1931 to Margaret and Hiram Cooper, and grew up poor in the city’s West Alexander neighbourhood.
As a teenager, Dot was big into roller skating. She attended Hugh John Macdonald School, where she met her high-school sweetheart, Wilfred Thom, who would go on to be her husband of 52 years. There’s a photo of her on her roller skates that’s made out to ‘Wilf.’
“They had lots of adventures together,” Sharon says of her parents, who loved to travel.
A few years after their wedding in 1953, the Thoms built a life in St. James, where Dot lived until she died. Daughter Sharon came first, followed by son Terry, who was adopted by his parents when he was three years old.
Terry recalls developing a fear as a small child that he would have to leave his parents’ house.
“My mom would comfort me, basically every night, telling me that I was right where I belonged and that I wasn’t going anywhere,” he says via Zoom from Kansas.
When her kids were young, Thom was a stay-at-home mom, and was a loving, involved parent. She would sew matching outfits for herself, Sharon and Sharon’s doll, Debbie. Both Sharon and Terry fondly recall trips with their mom to the Bay downtown.
Thom was a people person.
“My house was always the central meeting point with all of my friends because everybody loved my mom,” Terry says. “They loved my dad, too, but my mom was really the character in our house. I think people just felt comfortable around her.”
Terry says Thom always wanted to make sure everyone felt included, a point echoed by his sister. “My birthday parties always involved the whole classroom, because that’s fair, that’s what should happen,” Sharon says.
When her children were older, Thom started a new chapter in her life. She became a real estate agent, working for Royal LePage, before moving into property management, then eventually striking out on her own as Thom Management Services.
Wilfred, a certified management accountant, helped run the business after he retired from the provincial civil service, and Sharon joined on, as well. “It was a real family business until my dad passed away in 2005,” Sharon says. Wilfred was 73.
Thom relished her role as Bubbie to Allyson and Kara, as well as Terry’s daughter Madelyn. “She loved the girls with all her heart,” Sharon says. “Terry’s family lives in the U.S., and she took every opportunity she could to go down there and spoil her, as well. She was just full of love when it came to her grandchildren.” (And, as the years went on, great-grandchildren.)
Thom remarried in 2013, at the age of 82, to Culver Warren. She would outlive a second husband; Warren died in 2019 at the age of 86. Sharon says getting older was tough for her mom, but she was fiercely independent until the end.
“She lived her life the way she wanted to,” Sharon says.
Thom also “lived her values,” says Jordan Betteridge, whose father, Sydney Betteridge, was Thom’s next-door neighbour of 25 years. Jordan recalls a time Dot helped his dad, then an octogenarian, when he suffered a severe sunburn and dehydration after he was unable to get out of his backyard chaise lounge.
“(That) meant a great deal to me as it meant that there was someone frequently checking up on my father when I was not there myself, and always in a selfless, understanding, and supportive way,” Betteridge says via email. “A true and dependable friend.”
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Thom was funny. She had a hall-of-fame smile. Her nails were always done and her bed was always made. She loved birds and comic books. She was a terrible driver. “She cheated at cards and board games all the time, despite her honesty,” Terry says with a laugh.
“My mom was very, very loyal,” he says. “Very honest. I know everybody says this about their parents, but in my mom’s case, it was true. You can find thousands of people that have come across my mom who will remember her because of how she was.”
“I miss her and I know a lot of people miss her,” Sharon says. “She was a very special lady.”