A Life's Story
September 23, 2023
A lifelong love affair with southwestern Manitoba
By: Janine LeGal
Souris is home to Canada’s longest swinging pedestrian suspension bridge, a unique rock quarry, free-roaming peacocks and The Plum Heritage Church Museum.
And, for more than 50 years, this family-friendly community, rich in history and character, was home to Averill Whitfield.
Whether beautifying the neighbourhood with shrubs, flowers and a tea terrace at the Heritage Club, promoting tourism to Souris and southwest Manitoba through the Chamber of Commerce, or creating a hospitality readiness checklist for tourism providers, Averill did everything she could to help develop the town of Souris.
She wanted a healthy community that preserved and appreciated heritage and the environment, provided opportunities for youth, cultural enrichment and a sense of belonging.
She served on the executive of the Souris Skating Club, directing ice shows and chairing fundraisers. She led the choir, taught Sunday school and coached the Westman canoe and kayak team. Her 36-year involvement with Girl Guides of Canada included establishing Brownies and Guides in Souris in 1968, leading camping, wilderness and music training, initiating the town spring cleanup and water conservation projects.
She promoted international awareness and arranged opportunities to connect with Girl Guides and Girl Scouts from other countries. The Honorary Life Award recipient from the provincial and national council wanted each Spark, Brownie, Guide and Cadet to gain knowledge, confidence and skills to be leaders in their community.
Born in Winnipeg in 1938, Averill grew up in an active and creative household on Niagara Street. After graduating with an Associate of Manitoba Music – Piano Performer and a bachelor of arts from the University of Manitoba, she was hired to teach at Souris Collegiate in 1959.
Upon arriving, It was love at first sight — with both her new community and the local pharmacist, Ralph Whitfield. The couple married in 1960 and, soon after, were raising four children while operating successful businesses that included Whitfield Drugs, Woodsong Farms Simmental Breeders and Whitfield Enterprises. As business manager and secretary-treasurer, Averill worked behind the scenes and in front-of-store operations.
“She loved Souris; she could see so many special things about it and wanted to share that with the world,” said eldest daughter Pam Whitfield. “She loved the natural beauty of Souris, the industry of its people, and the richness of its heritage.
“Souris had many innovations all along and produced some really special people who have gone on to make contributions to the province, the country, and the world, and she really wanted to highlight that.”
When not writing and directing musicals, concerts and pageants, creating sets and costumes or volunteering to teach music, Averill was working toward preserving history and contributing to the Hillcrest Museum and The Plum – 1883 Souris Heritage Church Museum, both of which she helped save from demolition and helped transform into charitable organizations.
“She went without a lot of sleep,” said Pam. “She worked into the wee hours, to finish a grant proposal, to sew costumes, to write the many musicals, all the things she did.”
Quiet time was rare for Averill, but she had the support of her husband and the flexibility to pursue her goals the way she envisioned.
“She was very happy to do those things she loved,” said Pam. “She had a very clear vision for pretty much everything she did. Not everyone was in favour of her enthusiasm and her attention to detail, but she made things happen.
“The work ethic was important. We all were expected to work in the family businesses from the age of 12. She had very high standards for herself and for us. That was good, because we all strove to achieve them. I’m thankful for that. We learned the importance of doing your best.”
Pam’s daughter Caleigh remembers her grandmother’s vivacious approach to life.
“Nana never abandoned her educator background, teaching us to read and write, how to play the piano, and exposing us to her favourite classical music, musicals and literature,” she said. “She was the first employer for her children and us Souris grandchildren, as she and Papa were for so many other young people in town throughout the years.
“To this day, we continue to sort bills ‘front face inwards,’ and remember to ‘smile through the phone,’ as she taught us.
Caleigh added, “We were also fortunate to have been her Sparks when we were young. There, we learned the important contributions girls and women have made and continue to make within our world, remembering that we must never take those rights, that were fought for so valiantly, for granted.”
Averill’s unceasing commitment to community service continued long into her senior years and through hardships, including the loss of her son Chris in 2008 and caring for her husband after a collision. Less than two months after a hip replacement in 2010, she was back at the Plum Museum giving tours.
In 2011, Averill was recognized as a Brandon YWCA Woman of Distinction and, in 2012, received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.
In January 2017, Averill moved into the Souris Personal Care Home along with her husband where, for the first time, the pace slowed down for both to relax and enjoy.
“They were definitely partners,” Pam said about her parents, married 62 years. “Work was kind of their life. The staff knew Mom and Dad, as did the other residents and all the visitors and the people who would come to provide entertainment.
“It was a wonderful social time. She had no responsibilities. She was very happy. I downloaded all of the Girl Guide songs. We’d play those and sing together. She couldn’t remember the words, but she would hum along.”
Averill passed away on December 15, 2022 at the age of 84.
Barb Falloon’s life intertwined with Averill’s over many years. Falloon notes that her friend was quick to praise people when they achieved something special.
On one occasion, Falloon received a vase full of flowers and a card from Averill that read ‘Congratulations’ on one side and, on the other, ‘Vision is the gift to see what others only dream of,’ quoted from an Inuit legend.
“I kept this in a special place for many years, but when Averill passed away, I decided it should go to her granddaughter and great-granddaughter, as I felt the saying was very appropriate for them.
“The list of things Averill accomplished in our small town is a very lengthy one. We, as a community, are all very lucky that she was such an integral part in community things and influenced the lives of so many people.”
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