Influential Women of the South Okanagan
Shirley Rowbotham: Beautifying the Pioneer Walkway
by Maureen Olson
In Osoyoos, the Pioneer Walkway along the lakeshore on the south side of Highway 3, with its trees, shrubs, flowers, fountain, grotto, gazebo and clock, was developed through the efforts of volunteers, the donations of citizens and businesses, and the cooperation from Town Council, all under the direction of Shirley Rowbotham. An energetic and visionary woman, Shirley kept the momentum to enhance this landscaped space alive in the community for almost fifteen years. In fact, it is hard not to talk about the stunning Walkway without thinking of and thanking Shirley. The transformation from a stark path beside the highway to a colourful treed walkway, with benches and tables, that invites visitors to stroll along it from one end to another was achieved through the commitment and enthusiasm of Shirley who then stimulated the interest and persistence of others. She expressed her satisfaction when she said, "The town is better than when I first came."
Shirley was born March 23, 1923, the youngest of seven children. When she was six, her father died, leaving her mother to raise the children on a farm near Montreal. They were Protestants living in a Catholic community, thus they all encountered prejudice. Her mother believed the ability to speak English was essential so she found an Anglophone missionary school for the children to attend. During Shirley's childhood, the following values were stressed: hard work, thrift and sharing. Laughter, an appreciation of what one had and especially community participation were considered equally important.
Ever one to seek adventure and challenge, Shirley did not remain long in Quebec. After finishing school, she moved to Portland, Oregon, to live with her aunt. Once there, she took a stenography course. The trip whetted her appetite for travel.
After completion of the course, Shirley applied for a visa to go to Mexico. While she waited, she worked. However the visa was not prompt in arriving. As the delay grew longer, Shirley moved to Victoria, B.C., to apply for a second visa. Another delay. Not one to remain idle, she again found a job.
Just before her visa arrived, Shirley accepted a marriage proposal from David Jefferson. Travel plans soon became wedding plans.
"Life presents changes. The better you adjust to these, the better you are," was to become a theme in her life.
David and Shirley designed the first house they built. To help visualise their plan, Shirley constructed a wood model. The company supplying the wood was so impressed, it contacted CHEK TV in Victoria so that Shirley could appear on the noon show. A few years later, she returned to present a line of patterns and clothes for children she had designed and sewn. It turned out to be a fortuitous experience.
While in the studio, she watched the production of Romper Room, a syndicated children's show produced in Victoria. She was offered the opportunity to have training for the job of "Miss Shirley," the teacher on the "live" daily program. She accepted.
As her children, Parker and Michelle, were the same age as the children on the show, Shirley had no difficulties connecting with the viewing audience. She was a hit!
Three years later, she retired from the show to work behind the scenes. For the next fifteen years, she worked in production and promotion for CHEK, CKDA and CFNS television stations. It was a time of exciting programs and a time to learn how to handle the unexpected.
Each summer, the family travelled to Osoyoos for holidays of rustic camping under canvas. Here they enjoyed sunshine and friendly open people, many of whom became long-time friends.
David and Shirley divorced amicably when Parker and Michelle were at university.
When Shirley heard that undeveloped lots were for sale on Mt. Baldy, she purchased one because she believed in the mountain's potential. The next summer, with Parker's help, she transported a log cabin package to Mt. Baldy over the gravel road off Highway 3. They built the cabin in seventeen days! One of the first ten on the mountain, it is still in use by Parker.
A few years later, Shirley married John Rowbotham, a friend from square dancing.
After John retired, they moved to Osoyoos in 1974. Although they already had the cabin on Mt. Baldy, which they enjoyed in the winter, they soon became involved in the many activities offered by this small community on the lake. For these energetic early retirees, social events were exciting to plan and were then enthusiastically enjoyed. Shirley recognized, however, that there were gaps in the activities available for visiting children so she became involved in the planning of the annual Cherry Fiesta. Within short order, the community came to value her organizational abilities.
When the BC Winter Games were planned for Osoyoos and Oliver in 1985, who was approached to plan all the non-participant events? Shirley, of course, who chose an excellent committee of volunteers and provided clear directions so that all of their plans were achieved with fun and success. The 1985 event was legendary, and paving the road to the ski facilities on Mt. Baldy was just one of its legacies.
Shirley also had a gift for fundraising. Soon after the Winter Games, the Social Credit Government appointed Shirley to the South Okanagan Hospital Board. This new challenge was welcomed, and she became Chairperson of the Fundraising Committee, which was instrumental in raising $1.5 million dollars for the construction of a new X-ray department and kitchen at the hospital. Shirley remained on the board until 1995.
In 1992, the Walkway Action Committee, made up of five women led by Shirley, planned and then presented a proposal to beautify Pioneer Walkway to the Osoyoos Town Council for its approval and commitment. Under Shirley's persistent guidance and direct involvement, the project was completed in one and a half years, with only two meetings: the first, to discuss and develop ideas, and the second, to plan the Grand Opening for June 1993. The committee appealed to the community for donations of cash to buy trees, tree guards, and lights. Later, it requested donations of shrubs. The response was overwhelming. The staff at Town Office handled the donations, issuing tax receipts and mailing thank-you letters, which Shirley hand-wrote for each and every donation. She said, "I never wanted to ask permission [from the government] because my decisions were for the betterment of community."
The walkway became an on-going project. In 1995, an application was made to the BC 21 Fund for a grant to construct a public washroom facility at the east end of the walkway. The grant supplied one-third of the funds, the Town of Osoyoos provided additional monies, and Shirley once again appealed to businesses and residents of the area.
To start off the fundraising, Shirley wrote and published, with the assistance of Joyce Elliot, Shirley's Bright Ideas. She then sold the copies, with all proceeds going to the project. The Town Office again handled all of the finances.
Due to the dedicated volunteer work of many residents and the generous donations from local businesses, the washroom facility was completed and included a parking lot, which originally had not been in the proposal. The volunteers and donors are all recognized on a plaque attached to the building. What is not on the plaque is that Shirley looked after the daily opening and closing of the facility, from Easter weekend until Thanksgiving, for ten years before the Town agreed to take on this task.
The Pioneer Walkway, a striking memorial to honour the pioneers of various nationalities who settled the area, became a focus for further donations. In 1996, on the occasion of the 100th Year Jubilee, the South Okanagan Hungarian Club placed a time capsule, to be opened in 2046. A copy of Shirley's Helpful Hints is inside. In 2000, a woman of Slovenian descent offered Shirley $6,000 to create a suitable remembrance for these early residents. Shirley approached Tony Zelko, who designed and constructed the grotto that includes a representation of the mountains of Slovenia.
The next improvement was a fountain. Once again, Shirley used her talents to help fund the addition. Public involvement was encouraged, and the necessary $30,000 was raised for this Millennium Partnership Project. The delightful fountain created by John Zupan was added at the western end of the walkway.
The final enhancement, which completed the walkway to Shirley's satisfaction, was the clock. Horologist Raymond Saunders, son of her good friends Milton and Marion Saunders, was approached to create a clock in memory of his parents. Already having an iron clock in his basement, he installed its workings and then donated it. Shirley published a revised edition of Shirley's Helpful Hints and again donated the proceeds to finance the installation of the clock. The public, of course, assisted her in this task. The clock was dedicated on June 16, 2007.
Although Shirley Rowbotham was pivotal in the beautification of Pioneer Walkway, any time she was honoured, she first and foremost acknowledged all of the other volunteers who donated their time and talents; Shirley was always modest about her own contributions. Nevertheless, the community recognizes her tireless work.
A plaque on the clock reads, "From smallest to largest undertaking, you were always there to see it through." A fitting tribute to Shirley indeed.