A Life's Story
April 13, 2019
Devoted and determined
After nearly losing the love of her life in the Second World War, Ruth Mechler married her soldier, became a nurse and raised an adoring, adopted son
By: Ashley Prest
There would never be a right time for Ruth (Henry) Mechler to receive the news that her beloved Gene, a Canadian soldier in the Second World War, had been critically injured.
When the news came by telegram on Nov. 3, 1941, it was just days before 20-year-old Ruth was to take her final exam in nursing school at the Misericordia Hospital. When she found out that her fiancé was in grave condition with a fractured skull and it wasn’t known if he would survive, it was just too much.
"Cpl. Eugene Fred Mechler officially reported seriously ill as result of fractured skull suffered in motorcycle accident stop Further information follows when received," read the Canadian Pacific telegram, which Ruth saved. Gene was a member of the XII Manitoba Dragoons in London when a bomb exploded near him. The force of the bomb blast caused the motorcycle to crash and Gene spent two weeks in a coma.
"My dad’s mom (Gladys Shankland) tried to keep it from my mom until after she took the nursing exam, but someone in the neighbourhood heard something and told my mom. She phoned his (Gene’s) mom and said, ‘What’s going on?’ and found out, just two days before the final exam," said Ruth’s son, Alan Mechler.
Ruth, worried and distraught, failed the exam. The rules of the day decreed that there were no second chances at the nursing exam in Manitoba. If she still wanted to be a nurse, she’d have to try again in another province. After Gene returned safely home and was recovering, Ruth determinedly went after her dreams.
She found ways to become a nurse, to marry Gene and to have a family.
Ruth, who died at age 97 on Jan. 22, was a career nurse, a mother of one son and grandmother to Greg Mechler and Devon Berglund.
While Gene was recovering at home — he had suffered some memory loss due to his injuries and received a disability pension throughout his lifetime — Ruth moved temporarily to Woodstock, Ont., to attend nursing college. She graduated with the highest grades in her class.
"It was three years in Woodstock; 1944 when she went to Woodstock. She was very determined," Alan said.
After she graduated from the nursing program on March 22, 1947, Ruth was offered a job as the lead operating room nurse at the prestigious Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, but she was not going to be separated from Gene ever again.
They met in high school at Daniel McIntyre Collegiate. Two years apart in age, they grew up two streets apart in the West End — he on Strathcona and she on Ashburn.
Ruth’s story is also Gene’s story.
"Everybody commented on what a cute couple they were. They were totally devoted to each other," Alan said. "Just two peas in a pod."
Their wedding was on Aug. 16, 1947, and they were married for 60 years. Gene died just weeks after their 60th anniversary, on Sept. 2, 2007.
"She told me when they did start up (their life together) after the war, they got that little house on Goulding Street in the West End, and how tough things were," said Alan’s wife, Debbie.
"She told me how thrilled they were the day they got the stove. They had nothing in the house, compared to brides today. They were so thrilled to get anything, even a rug. It meant so much, because it was just a totally different world."
Ruth encountered yet another challenge when it turned out she and Gene were unable to have a child. Determined once again, Ruth became a mother in 1955 when she and Gene adopted Alan when he was just a few days old.
Alan said he "always knew" he was adopted and was always proud of it and grateful. He said he remembers lying in his bed as a youngster, looking up to heaven and thanking God for bringing him to this family.
He said Ruth would tell the story of how he would stick up for himself, if kids teased him about being adopted.
"She said I yelled back at them, ‘Well, my parents CHOSE me. Your parents got STUCK with you!"
Ruth adored her child, and she was elated to eventually become a grandmother.
"I asked Al’s mom once why they never adopted another child," said Debbie. "She said they never felt like they needed to, after they adopted Al. He was a newborn baby. They were just so thrilled to get a child. It made their lives complete."
The couple lived in the Goulding Street house for 16 years and then moved, when Alan was eight years old, to Westwood.
Ruth was always an adventurer at heart, Alan said.
During the war, she learned Morse code and worked as a radio operator in Lac La Ronge, Sask., a small northern town close to the Saskatchewan-Northwest Territories border. Alan said she would tell him stories about how her nerves of steel served her well when bush pilots would try crazy stunts to terrify her during flights in and out in of the community on small supply planes.
Ruth went on to work as a nurse for more than 20 years at the Misericordia and both Grace hospitals (the current facility on Booth Drive opened in 1967, replacing the hospital at Arlington Street and Preston Avenue). She worked for a time as an emergency room nurse but was primarily an operating room nurse, thriving on the intense atmosphere.
"Nursing was really important to her. I thought it might have been because of what happened to my dad. It was a way of caring for people and looking after them, and that mattered," Alan said.
Debbie said Ruth would often reminisce about her nursing days.
"In her later years, when she’d land in the hospital herself, we always heard about how things would have been done in her day as a nurse," Debbie said.
"She was always the 1940s-style nurse with the starched cap and all that. It was everything for the patient," Alan said.
Alan’s admiration and love for his mom was captured in his own words in his blog.
"Thank you, Mom. Thank you for these memories and so many more that I will carry with me forever. Thank you for all of your love and kindness. Thank you for all the sacrifices that you and Dad made so that my life would be better. Thank you for all the trips to emergency that I didn’t have to take because Band-Aids and ‘You’ll live’ were all that were really required. The day that you and Dad adopted me was my very, very best day," Alan wrote.
"Give Dad a hug for me and tell him that I miss him. I’m going to miss you, too. I love you, Mom."