Cherry Blossoms

Barbara Maud (Barrell) Wilberg

1936 ~ 2022 (age 86)

Obituary

Born to Wilfrid and Isobel Barrell, in the midst of the Depression, in March 1936, she was the elder sister of Sybil. She was a wonderful wife and mother. She was predeceased by her husband, Robert, in January 2021. She is survived by her sons Karl, Chris and Curtis, 6 grandchildren and a great granddaughter.

Her early life, like that of so many of her generation, was one of transition and contrasts. Her mother’s family, descended from fur traders and indigenous tribes, had traditionally farmed in Namao. However, her father’s family were British townsfolk from Suffolk whose first stop post WWI in Canada was the Crowsnest Pass. Her Grandfather managed hotels, and her father was a schoolteacher in Namao.

Thus the new world, Turtle Island, and the old world crossed paths in Namao where her father, Wilfrid, wooed, and wed her mother Isobel.

At this point, home was one of many places—a relative’s farm, a town at Wilf’s latest teaching assignment, or, during WWII, one of many RCAF stations where Wilf, now a Squadron Leader, was assigned.

She lost track of the number of times she changed schools, changed friends. This wasn’t a problem for someone with her innate adaptability and calm. Every new school and new town was another chance to make new friends. Engaging with and welcoming others remained a strength throughout her life.

As her father became a trusted advisor to the nation’s most powerful RCAF leaders, Barbara, always a quick study of people and events, saw how government and society worked at the highest levels. Their family’s home might have hosted an Air Vice Marshall, or a famous British novelist on a morale boosting tour of the Colonies.

All very heady stuff for a girl from Namao.

Practical skills were not forgotten—in addition to being a top student, she took secretarial courses and became a skilled seamstress. These skills all proved their value in her later life.

While in High School in Edmonton, she met her high school sweetheart, and later spouse, Robert (Bob). It wasn’t a likely match. In spite of their academic achievements and reputation for hard work, his German speaking family had been viewed with suspicion by Canadian authorities. This was a time when ethnic Japanese Canadians and other Canadian minorities were interned, or at the very least, surveilled. Bob’s family was no different.

Love, of course refuses to recognize the foolishness of state policy. Before long, they were betrothed and in 1957, married.    

The post war years were the lead- in to the modern era. Farm and frontier life would fade into the background for Barbara; together with her lifelong soul mate, Bob, she would journey into a lifetime of ambition and adventure.

Naturally, ambition brings adversity. In 1958, shortly after their marriage, Bob, a recent B.Ed, left behind a secure career as a teacher and voyaged with Barbara to Eugene, Oregon to pursue his Masters Degree in Physical Education. Barbara, now expecting their first child, Karl, helped by working as a secretary while Bob toiled on his coursework.

Their first marital home was a Depression era Civilian Conservation Corps barracks—H block. Suffice to say that while only the ghosts of the relief workers remained many thriving insects had taken their place. In the fridge. And everywhere else.

With baby Karl and Masters parchment in hand, Bob and Barbara decamped for Calgary where Bob became a renowned educator, and Barbara gave birth to Chris and Curtis. Barbara was active at St. David’s United Church, and in particular the Canadian Girls in Training program—a leadership and personal development program that helped girls explore their Christian faith and learn to become responsible citizens.

However, by 1964, an offer from the University of Oregon to return and complete his Ph. D. proved too strong a lure. Another voyage south, this time with the family’s belongings crammed into the box of a trailer (converted from the box of a Studebaker pick up truck), and the rest in the 1960s equivalent of the minivan—the station wagon.

Again Barbara filled in as a secretary, cooked for the family, sewed the boys’ clothes, and supported Bob as he worked on a thesis that marked him as one of the foremost researchers of the field of human memory and motor learning.

After receiving his Ph. D. Bob was recruited to his alma mater, the University of Alberta, and a return to Alberta took place. Stability at last? A staid slide toward tenure and a pension?

Hardly.

Now it was Barbara’s turn to unleash her own ambitions. Remember the reference to sewing? She, and a number of other fabric experts, developed a local franchise of the Stretch and Sew business empire that by the mid-70s had over 300 stores. The business thrived, and her basement was filled with bolts of fabric, paper patterns, and bobbins. Her boys and Bob were often used as mannequins and trialled the latest doubleknit fabric styles. (Give me a break, go look at a 1970s clothes catalogue—everyone was wearing it.)

All the while Barbara taught the boys, now becoming teenagers, about the importance of academic achievement, and excellence in sport and music. Indeed the best lessons were the ones closest to home: she taught them to cook, clean, sew clothes, and take care of their elderly family members. Taking the lessons and adaptability from earlier in her life, she was an ideal hostess, putting on events for family, work and Bob’s grad students, making everyone feel welcome.  Bob taught the boys how to change an oil filter, frame a house, and install a light switch. Important, yes, but Barbara taught us how to take care of ourselves and others.

The example she set ultimately helped Bob too, as in later years, as dementia took an increasing toll on her, Bob transformed into an intensely focussed and skilled caregiver.

But that was still in the future.

With the boys now in various University degree programs, and Bob’s famed laboratory churning out original research, Barbara decided it was time to improve the family’s overall GPA by obtaining her own degree. Her BA, with distinction, the family’s eighth degree (okay, we fell short of the ninth, or “nth” degree), propelled her into a new career as a museum curator.

Work at the Provincial Archives, other historic sites, and ultimately, the Ukranian Village, saw her rise to a high level. In this role she supervised technicians, curators and the others that preserve our heritage and bring it to life for the modern day. Like her spouse Bob, she became a published author, and her text “Tkanya, an Exhibit of Ukrainian weaving,” became a leading text with archival photos, weaving details, maps, and, hearkening back to her “Stretch and Sew,” days, an analysis of textiles and weaving tools.

Weavings and domestic exhibits were her stock in trade, but her curatorial exploits extended to rescuing a historic and rare CF-104 Starfighter from the scrap man. The RCAF were going to ditch Cold Lake’s 417 squadron’s specially painted ‘104, but Mom intervened and convinced them to donate it to the Reynolds Alberta Museum. Reluctantly, the RCAF agreed, but in a fit of institutional passive aggressiveness delivered the jet sans wings!

One phone call later, the RCAF learned the hard way, (as had her sons) that sleazy shortcuts would not be tolerated and if they knew what was good for them they’d correct their error, never do it again, brush their teeth after every meal, and look twice before crossing. The wings appeared (not that they were much to begin with) and to this day the craft sits proudly amidst other famous Canadian aircraft at the Reynolds museum Canadian Aviation Hall of fame. 

These were happy and great days. Colleagues were many, friends abounded and Grandchildren had arrived. When she and Bob retired to Nanoose Bay on Vancouver Island in the early 1990s, they had reaped the fruits of love and labour. At Nanoose Bay, golf, Elder College courses, and a host of new friends ushered in a new phase. Travel to Europe, Hawaii and simply enjoying the stunning ocean views of their new home made life complete.

Unfortunately, fate would hand Barbara a late coming and cruel challenge in the form of dementia. Many would have reacted with rage, bitterness, and self pity. This would not however, have been Barbara.

Although her mind began to fail, her good spirits and innate courage never did. Barb struggled for nearly 20 years with the gradual diminishment of her powerful intellect. Bob stepped up too, and lavished her with care: he attended to her grooming, clothing, outings and showered her with love.

Eventually, as Bob’s own health faltered, full time caregivers, Amanda and Zoe, took over. With their tender and faithful help, Mom survived her disease with grace and dignity. She never complained, or was critical.

Ever.

Even when Bob passed on, in 2021, she could still muster a smile, attempt a gesture of love, and when her great granddaughter Aurora was presented to her, she murmured how wonderful it was.

Finally, on July 14, 2022, she passed on in her home at Nanoose Bay, surrounded by family. To the end she was steadfast and telling us, as best she could, that she was at peace, in the hands of the Creator, and was going to be fine. She leaves us heart broken and grieving, but far better persons for having been part of her life.

With the ongoing pandemic in mind, we have decided not to have a public gathering to celebrate Barbara’s life, but as with Bob, we will do it virtually. If you have thoughts or stories you would like to share we would welcome them in the virtual book of condolences. 

In lieu of flowers a donation to the Alzheimer’s Society or a charity of your choice, in Barbara’s memory, would be a fitting tribute.

Sincerely,

The Wilberg family

 


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