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Muriel Tomkins Niemi

Wife, sister, aunt, traveller, professor, writer, lover of poetry. Born April 2, 1922, in Montreal. Died Oct. 22, 2011, in Vancouver of complications after a fall, aged 89.

Muriel Tomkins grew up in Montreal during the Depression. She attended the commercial program at Verdun High School because her mother, with the best of intentions, thought that being a secretary would be a good, safe job for a young woman of limited prospects. Years later, earning a doctorate from Harvard University and professorships at several Canadian and American universities was sweet vindication for Muriel.

Skills in stenography and typing stood her in good stead, nonetheless. After working at a bank, in 1946 she took a secretarial position with the International Air Transport Association in the early days of post-war civilian aviation. At a time when air travel was exotic, she regularly flew throughout North America and Europe, and further afield to Egypt and Brazil. She enjoyed the glamour and excitement, but eventually itched to move beyond taking dictation and typing letters for others to expressing her own thoughts and ideas.

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Muriel earned her BA through evening courses at Sir George Williams (now Concordia) University, with the example and encouragement of her brother, George. She gained admission to the University of Wisconsin, earning a master's degree in English, then taught English education at McGill University in Montreal (more vindication, as McGill had rejected her application to its master's program). She later completed a doctorate in English at Harvard University and, in 1965, accepted a position at the University of British Columbia, where George was also on the faculty.

There she met John Niemi, a Finnish-American whose exuberant energy bowled her over. Married in 1968, both were passionately committed to the value of higher education and the mind-broadening experience of travel. They had no children of their own, but regularly hosted their nieces and nephew for sleepovers devoted to bowling, Chinese food, late-night treats and John's "awful waffles" for breakfast.

In 1975, they moved to DeKalb, Ill., where they worked closely together at Northern Illinois University. Following John's death in 2004, Muriel moved back to Vancouver, by then virtually blind after lifelong vision problems. She chafed at the loss of her independence, and her later years were challenging for her and those who loved her, particularly her sister-in-law, Doreen Tomkins, on whom she relied heavily.

Following a hip fracture in September, Muriel experienced a series of complications and declined rapidly in hospital – without, however, losing her ability to quote poetry at length. A lifelong Christian Scientist, she welcomed the end to a long and full life with grace and equanimity.

By Janet, Karen, Sandra and Greg Tomkins, Muriel's nieces and nephew.

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