Unheralded People Are Some of the Real Heroes

Unheralded People Are Some of the Real Heroes
Sir Sean Connery attends the Edinburgh International Book Festival in Scotland on Aug. 25, 2008. (Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images)
Brad Bird

When celebrities like Sean Connery and Alex Trebek passed on recently, the media gave them appropriate notice. But take a look at the obituaries in your local newspaper almost any day and you’ll find unheralded people who also deserve to be remembered, some maybe more than the rich and famous.

Take Noreen Braiden, for instance. She was born March 15, 1937, in Dublin, Ireland, and met her husband, Paddy, at a dancehall there. They moved to Edmonton in 1957, where Paddy began his policing career. Then they moved to Victoria and raised four children.

“Mom managed to work full time, raise four children, all born within five years of each other. Noreen loved music, travelling, dancing, and socializing with friends … even taking up marathon running at the age of 50,” reads her obit in the Times Colonist on Nov. 12.

Obits are a vastly underrated part of newspapers. They paint, in précis form, a picture of the people who made Canada what it is today. The same is true in the United States or any other country—obituaries are a valuable register of the people whose actions and values helped to build on tradition and create fine communities.

Let’s look at some others from only two days, Nov. 12 and 13, in the Times Colonist.

Onelio Asquini was born in Italy in 1946, came to Canada to work in construction, “and had his hands in the building and renovating of many buildings in Victoria and across the mainland. He loved to laugh and to make others laugh. He was loved by many and will be missed greatly” as a husband and father, reads his simple and short obit. We can also imagine what isn’t there—the bone-chilling days of construction, the injuries and close calls on the job, the special times with his sons.

We also read about Shirley “Chic” Brooks, the youngest of six in the Henn family who grew up on Salt Spring Island where she met and married Donald Brooks. “Together they raised their family while living a life of travel and service to Canada as members of the Canadian Armed Forces. Leaving bonds of friendship around the world, Chic was a kind and loving woman who was adored by her children,” her obit says.

“Upon the passing of her husband, Chic established a new life for herself in Victoria. She was truly inspirational. She taught aerobics to seniors, started line-dancing, walking tours and continued her travels around the world well into her 80s. Known as the family cat whisperer, Chic loved books, chocolate and most importantly spending precious time with each of her beloved adult children and their families.”

Notice the themes: service to country, to family, to community, infused with the joy of living.

We read about James Grahame, born in Northern Ireland in 1939 who went on to become a physician. He took up a urology residency in Winnipeg and raised two children with his first wife. He then moved to Vancouver, married again, and helped raise four stepchildren. “Kind, generous, loyal, funny, wise, full of life, maker of mischief and bringer of joy, the world was better for having him in it. Truly a class act!”

Trudi Spika was 94 when she passed away. Born near Vienna, she spent her early years working in the family inn. According to her obit, her happy childhood was replaced “by the uncertainties of the Second World War. Near the end, the family’s Vienna apartment was destroyed in the last Allied bombing raid of the war. With the end of the war in May 1945, the family remained in Vienna, living in the then-Soviet occupation zone, a dangerous place, especially for women.”

She left for England in 1947, working as an au pair, then as a nightclub hostess, where she met movie star Peter Sellers. She came to Canada in 1959 and rejoined her parents in Calgary, where she parlayed experience managing a restaurant into an instructor’s position in hospitality at a local college. In middle age she married Dr. Otto Spika.

Near Spika’s obit on the page is the story of Robert Forsberg, who died at 95. Born in B.C. to Swedish immigrants, Bob joined the RCAF in 1943 and served as a leading aircraftman at several bases in Canada. After the war he became a forestry engineer and married Leona, living in trailers in various camps in the B.C. Interior for the first seven years of their marriage. Bob helped to plan the placement of logging roads.

A skilled woodworker, he built furniture, several sundecks, and even a sailboat which he learned to sail. “He also produced some beautiful carvings of wildlife that he saw while growing up in the interior,” the obit says. He could fix anything, doing all his own household improvements and repairs.

These are only some of the fascinating people listed in two days’ worth of obits in a small daily paper. Multiply these by many thousands and you get an idea of how this country came to be the compassionate, sensible, well-governed place that it is (or was).

Honouring the Alex Trebeks and Sean Connerys of the world is fine, but let’s not forget the Noreen Braidens and Onelio Asquinis et al. The former made their names thanks to media celebrity; the latter, because of virtuous, loving, unselfish lives. No doubt they weren’t perfect, but neither are the rich and famous.

Brad Bird is an award-winning reporter and editorial writer based in British Columbia. He has also written or edited five books.
Brad Bird began his career by freelancing in the 1970s. He worked for the Winnipeg Free Press in the 1980s and various smaller papers since, as well as abroad in conflict zones and for a Conservative MP in the Harper government. Also an author, he divides his time between Manitoba and B.C.