Skip to main content

A Lot of Living: Ruby Greer Turns 100!

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

medium_ruby.jpg--August 4, 2003

This past Saturday, Stanstead's Ruby Greer turned 100! To mark the occasion, Centenary United Church held an open house, with Ruby as the guest of honour. There was a huge crowd on hand, including the mayor, Raymond Yates, who presented Ruby with a plaque on behalf of the municipality. "Congratulations Ruby," it said, "we are so proud to have you among us here in Stanstead, and we wish you many more happy years to come!" There were also messages from countless well-wishers, including the Governor General, the Premier of Quebec, and the Queen of England.

Ruby agreed to meet me for an interview a couple of days before her big bash. It was ten o'clock in the morning, and she showed me into her cozy little apartment at the White House, the seniors' residence on Dufferin Street in Stanstead. There were cards from well-wishers everywhere. I said, "I see you've been getting a lot of mail lately." "Yes," she said with a grin, "and I'm having some more visitors at noon. But never mind, we've got until then." I said, "In that case, Ruby, we better get started, because I've got a lot of questions, and a hundred years is a long time to cover!"

Here are some excerpts from our conversation:

MF: Ruby, when and where were you born?
RG: I was born on my parents' farm on August 2, 1903, between Waterloo and West Shefford, in Shefford County, near what is now called Bromont. We lived on a small farm, and that was how we made our living -- cattle, horses, and crops. I was born Ruby Sparling -- a good Irish name. My parents' names were Harvey and Elizabeth. I had two sisters, Mabel and Hazel.

MF: Did you come from a religious family?
RG: Well, we were brought up Methodists. My sisters and I would go to church and Sunday school every week, but my parents didn't go. But we did become friendly with the minister, maybe because my mother thought it would save our souls. (Chuckle).

MF: When did you leave home?
RG: When I went to study at Macdonald College, after I finished high school in Waterloo. But there was a lot of living in between -- a lot of living.

MF: What do you mean?
RG: Well, when I was six years old, our house burned to the ground. It happened in December. My sister and I were visiting my aunt and uncle eight miles away in a little village called Warden. There were no telephones then, so we couldn't communicate. But my uncle used to go to the village to get himself well lubricated once or twice a week. There he met my father, who was looking for lumber to rebuild the house. You see, we didn't know yet that the house had burned down. In fact, when it caught fire, my father was up on Shefford Mountain cutting wood. My mother sent my sister up the mountain to tell my father the house was on fire. But she didn't want to go, so she had to use a little switch to switch her legs to make her go.

MF: Then what happened?
RG: People had all gone to church, and on their way home they noticed the smoke coming out of the roof. They all stopped in their sleighs and horses to help my mother. They threw things out the windows that should have been carried out, and the things that should have been thrown out they carried carefully. Everything was broken or damaged. And the next morning was the worst storm you ever saw. The clothes were all wrapped around the fence posts. There was a lot of snow -- a lot of snow. One of the worst winter days you could imagine. That was one of my first bad memories.

MF: What was your very first memory, Ruby?
RG: When I was baptized, when I was five years old. I remember the minister coming to our house and taking me in his arms.

MF: What was your first job?
RG: When I went to Shawbridge to teach. I taught elementary school there -- all the grades up to grade 7. Then I came back to Waterloo, where I taught grade 8 for two years at Waterloo High School. Then I started going with Bill Greer, a local boy. They wanted to make a farmer out of Bill, but he wasn't farm material. He worked in insurance. Then we got married. I think that was 1925. I was no longer teaching at that point.

MF: How did you and Bill end up moving to Stanstead?
RG: The year after we were married, Bill was sent here by the insurance company to represent this part of the country. That was in 1926. Our first place was a little apartment in Rock Island. Then we moved up to Stanstead.

medium_westshefford.jpgMF: Ruby, backtrack a bit in time. Do you remember when there were only horses and buggies on the streets?

RG: Yes, I remember it very well when there were no cars -- only horses. I remember the first car in Waterloo. The man had a music store. Music and sewing machines and pianos, and that sort of thing. And always looking for business. He knew that my mother might be in line for a new sewing machine, so he came over in his car, and took us for a ride. It was the most exciting time in our lives. We all put veils over our heads, dusters, and he took us for a mile down the road. The car had an open top. I think that must have been about 1913 or so. That was the very first car in Waterloo.

MF: You must have seen a lot of new things come along in a hundred years. What other inventions do you remember being impressed with?
RG: I remember the telephone. My father was great at trying out new things, so as soon as the telephone became popular, we got one. Our neighbours had one too, but there were only about six people around West Shefford who had them. When the phone rang everyone ran to the phone to get the news, whether you knew the people or not -- a real party line. If you didn't know them you just listened. And you didn't dare say anything bad about anyone in case they were listening. (Chuckle).

MF: What about the radio?
RG: I was at Macdonald College when I heard a radio for the first time. A man came in with one, and I heard this music. I couldn't figure out where it was coming from, but I didn't want to say anything.

MF: How about the Depression? Do you remember the Great Depression very well?
RG: Oh, yes, but it was something we didn't talk about. My husband lost his insurance job, so he was out of work. He went to Butterfield's in Rock Island to see if there was anything, and there was because he had dual citizenship. He was born in the U.S., so he could work on both sides of the floor -- in Canada or the U.S. That was around 1932 or 33. Bill worked at Butterfield's for about ten years. But he might as well have not worked, the money they got was so bad. His take-home pay was $5.55 per week. That was a terrible time, the Depression. A lot of very poor people with absolutely no money. We had no money. Sometimes I couldn't even find five cents to buy something. Many people lost their homes.

MF: When did you start teaching again?
RG: When the Depression started. Someone told me they needed a substitute teacher at the old model school, which was affiliated with Stanstead College. I taught there for three weeks. Soon after that we went to live with Mr. Daly, an elderly gentleman. We moved in with Mr. Daly, and I helped do the meals and my husband helped take care of Mr. Daly. We didn't have to pay rent, just buy the food for the table. We lived there for two years, which was a real godsend. It was only after the War started that I went back to teaching full-time. All the boys were taken off again, so they needed teachers. I taught from about... 1944, I think, until I retired in 1967. But before I retired I taught for three years at the new school across the street, Sunnyside.

MF: You must have some pretty good stories about life on the Border -- smuggling and so on?
RG: I do but I can't tell you. I can tell you one thing that my son-in-law, Harold, said. He said there was one thing that bothered him about the Border -- that his mother-in-law was a smuggler. That was me. (Chuckle).

MF: Ruby, what would you say is the thing you are most proud of in 100 years?
RG: Well, I think I always worked hard... But I always felt that we had to have a divergence from the work, and I used to play as well. When I was teaching, I used to curl and golf. This was my time. I think that was important, and it should be important that people have time off to themselves... I also worked in the town a lot. I don't think anyone knows about that. People soon forget anything you did... I helped get the town cleaned up, Lady Banting and I. There were trees falling down, houses falling down. We went to every council meeting in both Stanstead and Rock Island. It was in 1967 for the Canadian Centennial, no one else wanted to do anything, so we said we'd take it on.

MF: What is your favourite pastime in your old age?
RG: Talking with people. I enjoy that.

MF: And what kind of outlook do you try to maintain in your life?
RG: I think you have to persevere. You can't give up easily, you have to keep going. Your attitude is very important -- very important. And to be happy, and try and make other people happy is very important... As I used to say after my husband died in 1974 (we were married forty-nine years), when you're depressed, you can cry in your bedroom, but when you got out on the street, you look cheerful and happy - right? (Chuckle).

MF: Ruby, you're always chuckling. Would you say that this was part of your secret to a long life?
RG: I think so.

MF: Would you say you've had a very happy life, Ruby?
RG: I think so, considering everything. There were times during the Depression when life was difficult, really difficult -- because I was having my babies at the same time. The lack of money was something that was hard to contend with. The Depression was one of my worst memories, but I try not to think about it.

MF: Ruby, how many kids did you have?
RG: Two girls and two boys. I lost one of my boys when he was 62. But I have twenty grandchildren and twenty-four great-grandchildren.

MF: That's pretty impressive! Ruby, what do you look forward to most down the road?
RG: I live one day at a time... I look forward to seeing my family when they come.