A Life's Story
February 25, 2023
Community leader with class, kindness
Margaret Wishnowski, 90, ‘proudly carried a large role’ in Riverton culture
By: Janine LeGal
For many years after her husband died, Margaret Wishnowski lived alone and without a lock on her door — because she worried someone might need a safe place to come to.
Rosanna Cuthbert, the youngest of Wishnowski’s five children, remembers telling her mother the family would feel better if she locked the door to her Riverton home.
“Mom looked at me incredulously and said, ‘I can’t do that… what if someone needs to get in?’” she says. “Throughout the years, and when we were growing up, it was not in the least bit unusual to wake up in the morning and find someone sleeping on our couch, having come in at some point during the night.
“People felt like our humble home, with all its imperfections, was somewhere where they thought of to go when they needed to, where they would be safe and loved.”
That’s what mattered to Wishnowski. She didn’t see differences in people, treating everyone the same; everyone’s life mattered to her, especially the underdog.
“They felt that she wasn’t judging them,” Rosanna says. “She wanted to know how everyone was. This is how Mom lived her life, always caring for the less fortunate, and just simply being there for whomever needed help or to be listened to.
“She never offered advice, she just sat and listened. People would tell her everything. She always saw the light and the good in everybody, especially in the underdog, the less privileged, and was always looking to elevate and bring dignity to everyone.”
Wishnowski died April 18, 2022, at age 90.
Born in 1931, she grew up in the house built by her father, close to extended family, in Riverton on the Icelandic River. Despite few financial resources, Wishnowski described her childhood as glorious and magical.
“They ran around and played… she got the meaning of life and never lost it,” says her daughter.
Wishnowski loved music and dancing, and attended dances in the area as often as she could. It was at one such event she met her love, Victor. The couple would be together for 54 years.
The historian, writer, researcher, and community volunteer attended Normal School in Winnipeg, where she also received her teaching certificate, and, ultimately, her university degree in her 50s.
Wishnowski thrived teaching the Icelandic language to elementary students in Riverton — with her retirement making her quite likely being the last person to teach Icelandic in a public school in North America.
“In the close-knit community of Riverton, Margaret proudly carried a large role,” says Tanis Grimolfson of the Riverton & District Friendship Centre.
“She would call RDFC often to see what was going on, and made sure she was always present. She was our community historian, our Icelandic teacher, a huge community supporter, and a lifelong friend to all. She was so proud to be from our small community and showed it in every way by supporting all organizations and people in our community.
“I remember when RDFC had a celebration for the Queen’s 60th… We had an afternoon tea and dance… I will never forget how classy Margaret looked in her red dressy hat and outfit. You could have mistaken her for the Queen herself,” Grimolfson says.
“This was the way she always carried herself, with class, kindness, and a huge smile… She was truly one of a kind — a true gem, with a heart of gold.”
Wishnowski wasn’t one to stay at home much, even after she reached an advanced age.
She preferred to be out doing committee work, meeting with townsfolk or attending social events. Her daughter would often have to check social media posts to find out where her mother might be that day.
“Sometimes, when we would call her and she didn’t answer, all we had to do was look on Facebook and sure enough, there would be a post with Mom dancing at the hall at a community dinner and dance, or hanging out with (Riverton hockey legend) Reggie Leach.”
Insatiably curious about the world around her, Wishnowski read the daily newspaper from cover to cover. She honoured the family’s Ukrainian heritage and instilled in her children a respect for all cultures.
Wishnowski also spent her life doing what she could to preserve her Icelandic culture, and was given the honour of Fjallkona (Maid of the Mountain) at Gimli’s Icelandic Festival of Manitoba in 2001.
When she wasn’t out and about, Wishnowski focused on her passion for gardening.
“She was a steadfast environmentalist, tending to her organic garden, composting, and being conscientious about waste, long before it was recognized as being important,” says her daughter.
“She used to lament often that it was ridiculous how all the ditches, parks, and roadways had to be cut and so perfectly manicured. It didn’t make any sense to her to destroy all the beautiful native flowers, weeds and vegetation.”
Wishnowski’s interest in history led to her involvement with the preservation of the former Canadian Pacific Railway station in Riverton. She eventually compiled a book titled Train Stories from the Icelandic River, with its proceeds going to the Transportation and Heritage Centre now located inside the former station building.
Vickie Johnson bonded with Wishnowski over their shared interest in the preservation of Riverton’s history.
“Djorfung Ladies Aid is a long-standing community group established in 1901,” she says. “Their early documentation was handwritten in Icelandic, and I asked Margaret if she would be willing to translate. Margaret felt this piece of history should be preserved to pass down to our children.
“In early 2018, I had the privilege and honour of nominating Margaret to be inducted into the Evergreen Foundation Hall of Fame, of which she was so deserving. Her teaching career with the Evergreen School Division, her community mindedness, and personal accomplishments, her many special attributes and abilities have left a lasting legacy in the many groups she was involved in during her life and the people she touched along the way.”
An active and dedicated member on several committees in Riverton, Wishnowski lived in service to others.
“She was someone I loved to hang around with,” Rosanna says. “She lived a life of meaning and giving back.”