A Life's Story
February 16, 2019
The language of love
After helping her daughter overcome dyslexia, Elaine Paul made it her life mission to teach children to read
By: Melissa Martin
Elaine Paul was always smiling. That’s what everyone who knew her remembers. And they remember that few things made her smile brighter than when a child learned to read: she’d felt that joy as a parent, and it would soon become her life’s mission.
So when Elaine died on Oct. 10 at age 90, she left behind a legacy of caring that benefited children across Manitoba. Countless kids have had the opportunity to participate in a school that meets their needs, in part because of her tireless efforts; many more learned to read through her patient guidance.
In a way, that journey began with a simple love story. Elaine Footlick was 12 years old when she met a nice boy named Leonard Paul. From the start, the childhood sweethearts only had eyes for each other; they married in 1950 and enjoyed 41 devoted years together, until Leonard died in 1991. Elaine never remarried.
Together, the couple built a big, bustling family of four children. Rory, the eldest, was born in 1952, and three daughters — Andria, Carla and Marcia — followed soon after. As the kids grew, the Paul house filled up with neighbourhood kids, and Elaine welcomed them all with cookies and open arms.
"Nobody was ever turned away," Carla recalls. "She was constantly smiling, and happy and greeting everybody. And that’s what everybody will tell you about, her smile."
The couple was hard-working and resourceful. Money was tight as Leonard worked to get his business, Imperial Soap and Supplies Ltd., off the ground. (The company is still owned by the Pauls’ extended family.) But the kids never noticed; their parents somehow found ways to pay for sports and music lessons.
"Dad didn’t bring home a paycheque for years when he started his business," Rory says. "I’m not quite sure how we lived. I have no idea. But we certainly didn’t know we didn’t have money. That’s the kind of people our parents were."
In the late 1950s, the family moved to what was then a brand-new neighbourhood called Garden City. They were just the third family to move into the area, but many others followed. They all had kids around the same age and soon the streets echoed all day with the sound of children’s play.
The Paul kids mostly thrived in the new Garden City schools, but there was an exception. At home, Carla was a lively child, brimming with energy. But she struggled in school, particularly with reading; when Elaine visited her classes, she would find her daughter slumped in a corner, shrinking from classroom activities.
Educators in the early 1960s didn’t know much about dyslexia, a condition that makes it difficult to link sounds with letters; many didn’t even know it existed. Teachers told Elaine her daughter was cognitively impaired, even incapable of learning. But Elaine knew what her daughter could do; she knew there must be a solution.
"That was the thing about our parents," Rory says. "Their children were going to have the best they could possibly give them at all times. They had a child that was having difficulty in school, they were going to solve that problem."
With a mother’s determination, Elaine set about helping her daughter read. She had no formal knowledge of how to tutor kids with dyslexia, so she learned mostly by trial and error. Today, Carla remembers many long nights reading with her mother, going over the letters, practising each sound.
The intervention worked. Through her mother’s support, Carla learned to read. But the experience left Elaine with a new mission. She’d seen how little support there was in 1960s-era schools for kids like her daughter, who learned in different ways; now, she wanted to help those other children, too.
At the time, the Pauls had been meeting with a small group of other parents who had kids with learning disabilities. What was at first an informal support group soon crystallized into the Manitoba Association for Children with Learning Disabilities. Today, it known as the Learning Disabilities Association of Manitoba, or LDAM.
The group rented a small office where Rory, in his teen years, volunteered as a tutor. They helped support children directly and provided resources for parents. Together, they lobbied governments to improve access to education for kids with learning disabilities and worked with universities to improve teacher training.
Invigorated by her work with MACLD, Elaine was eager to do more. Her life was already jam-packed with meetings; in the late 1950s, she’d helped found the B’nay Abraham Synagogue, and was a leader and avid fundraiser in several Jewish women’s organizations. Somehow, she still had more time to give.
She found that calling in the classroom. She started volunteering at R.F. Morrison School when her daughters were young; she continued that work long after they’d moved on. For more than 40 years she visited classrooms four days a week, to sit and read one-on-one with kids.
Elaine took that work as seriously as any paid job. She kept detailed notes on each child’s progress and notified teachers of her planned vacations before the school year started. Before long, teachers came to think of her as part of the staff and indispensable part of their classroom.
By the time she joined teacher Sharon Berkowitz’s Collicutt School classroom in 1997, Elaine was already a legend in Seven Oaks School Division. The time she spent with the kids went beyond the ABCs, Berkowitz saw: the kids came to trust her as a warm and attentive friend.
"It makes me cry just thinking back, how much love she had for the kids," Berkowitz says. "She truly was like their grandmother. She just valued them so much, and they loved her. It was always, always always about the reading."
Over the years, Elaine recruited other women to volunteer at the school, including at a weekly event they called Grandmother Tuesdays. Accolades flowed in: in 1991, she was featured in the newspaper when the Manitoba Teachers’ Society honoured her with a volunteer award. But the recognition wasn’t what motivated her.
"Mom never looked for the limelight," Rory says. "She never wanted to be singled out... That wasn’t her goal. Working with kids was as fulfilling to her as anything you could imagine. That was the thing that filled her heart."
That dedication to children made an impression on everyone around her. Three of her own kids grew up to become educators. Rory is a retired Seven Oaks School Division principal. Carla works with kids in Winnipeg School Division, and Marcia teaches youth martial arts in Seattle.
"She influenced and affected other people," Rory says. "She encouraged other people to get involved, regardless of what organization they were involved with or what it was they were doing. And many, many people did. They still are."
About a decade ago, Elaine finally "retired" from volunteering. She’d accomplished much and helped build many lasting community organizations. But her proudest achievement was always her children, 10 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren — and of all the kids she’d met along the way.
"What she was proud of is when she would see a kid read," Carla says. "She’d be proud of the kid, not herself."
Now, that work will go on. Before Elaine died, she asked that donations in her memory go to LDAM, to continue the vital work she helped launch, or to the CancerCare Manitoba Foundation, earmarked for pediatric cancer research. Above all, there’s one simple way to carry on her legacy: sit down with a child, open a book, and read.
"She knew there was this great need for teachers to have support in the classroom, and for one-to-one reading," Berkowitz says. "That’s what drove her, why she was so committed. She was just an exceptional soul, and this is what she felt was her life’s work, and made her life’s work."