A Life's Story
October 28, 2023
‘The fastest Gunn in the West’ had an insatiable love of life — and a real need for speed
By: Janine LeGal
‘It tastes like more.” That expression, often used when someone craves a second helping of food or drinks because of their irresistible taste, was one of Rita Gunn’s favourites.
“To me it encapsulates how she lived her life,” said Kerry Dangerfield. He, along with Gunn and Greg Mason, founded Prairie Research Associates (PRA) Inc. in 1988.
“She always looked for more out of life, which for Rita meant she expected more and gave more of herself to family, friends, her business and the community. As a result, if you had the good fortune to know Rita, you would be enveloped and pulled along by her in her pursuit of more. She was a mentor to countless emerging evaluators who joined PRA as new graduates and went on to become partners of the firm or to establish successful careers in government or the private sector. Rita seemed to know everyone in Winnipeg.”
Gunn died on April 17, 2023.
The force of nature, as she was known, embellished her age a bit so she could get a job working at the Eaton’s slipper bar even before she graduated from St. John’s High School. Gunn was eager to live life, and live it large, savouring every moment.
She married Bernie Gunn of the renowned Gunn’s Bakery, and moved from retail to marketing for CKY Radio. She even did a modelling stint in her early years.
Her university education began as an adult student, together with motherhood. As a crisis counsellor at Klinic during this time, her commitment to feminism and social justice deepened.
In her 40s, Gunn earned a master of arts in sociology at the University of Manitoba. Her thesis on the failure of the criminal justice system to support victims of sexual assault eventually became a book (co-authored with Candice Minch) titled Sexual Assault: The Dilemma of Disclosure. She lectured in women’s studies at the university and was a guest speaker at conferences in Canada and abroad.
It was while working on campus directing University of Manitoba research that Greg Mason first saw his future wife. Both he and Gunn’s first marriages had ended. He asked a colleague how he could find Gunn to collaborate on a project because of her work experience. Back in the days when smoking was still permitted on campus, he followed the smoke down a hallway.
“There was this apparition in sweatpants banging away on a typewriter working on her book. She said, ‘What do you want?’”Mason recalled.
He left some paperwork for her to review and returned to his office.
“Shortly after, she barged in and said, ‘Yes I’ll do this.’ It was not love at first sight,” he chuckled.
The pair started working together, putting in long hours, once on Christmas Eve to get a contract out while nobody else was on campus and the only thing they could order in was Chinese food. Those days were the catalyst for the inception of Prairie Research Associates, and in 1993, a second marriage for both.
Gunn’s new career as a management consultant led to 27 years directing major studies in criminal justice, health and the arts.
“She worked very hard,” Mason recalled. “Her office both at home and at work was festooned with post-it notes, she was constantly working. She was like a dashboard and managing everything.”
Known for her impatience with traffic lights and the resulting speeding tickets while driving her convertible, “even the Winnipeg police had a nickname for her, the fastest ‘Gunn’ in the west,” Mason explained.
Her strong sense of self and ability to connect with everyone served her well as she travelled throughout remote northern communities on a project visiting artists in their homes and studios, including Inuit artist Simon Tookoome of Baker Lake. When Tookoome died, his daughter called Gunn to say that her father had wanted to give her something.
“It was a huge, gorgeous painting, which has a place of honour in our home,” said Mason. “She was very proud of the relationships she made with Inuit and Indigenous artists.”
She served years with the Sisterhood of Shaarey Zedek, and was passionate about her work on the Board of the Manitoba Theatre Centre, and revitalizing the Black and White Ball to become one of Winnipeg’s premier fundraising events.
Vibrant and always juggling multiple tasks, Gunn had an unforgettable presence. No matter how busy life became, family was always first.
Alanna Gunn cherished the time she spent with her mother, whom she considered her best friend. The two of them were inseparable.
“I’m a bit of a rebel … she encouraged that in me,” said the younger Gunn. “As a teenager we butted heads a lot. She always made me stronger and encouraged me.
“We talked every day. We would sit and talk in the evenings. She would come by, we’d call it the drive-by. She’d whip into the driveway, come into the house, see the kids, give them gifts, visit for half an hour, spoil them rotten.”
There were the famous family dinners Friday or Sunday nights.
“She would fly home that day from work, stop at La Grotta and get groceries on the way. She’d be unloading as I got there. There’d be dinner on the table for eleven of us,” Alanna said.
For two weeks every December, Gunn brought the family together in Mexico, which she always anticipated with excitement.
“We’d have a great time: quality time with kids, family dinners, lots of restaurants. She’d spoil us. Vacations with us were so important. Family was number one. It’s part of her legacy to take care of her family,” said Alanna.
“If you were on her side, she would go to bat for you, to the very end of the earth. She would move mountains in order to support you,” said her son, Danny Gunn.
“She was very hands-on as a mother. I was proud that she was my mother: she always looked good; she was an extraordinarily hard worker. She really was, in the early ’80s, the image of the superwoman. It’s something that she absolutely embraced. She was gonna do it all. She was absolutely driven.
“I often say that you get to try to distill the best of your parents. She taught me the value of hard work, she taught me the importance of standing up for what you believe in, treating people with dignity, trying to understand their background and history with sensitivity. She really did truly live life fully.”
A Life's Story
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