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Grandma's egg money sent her daughters to university


As my taxi driver pulled onto the highway to the airport early this March, he asked me if I was going somewhere warm. I told him I was heading to Winnipeg where it was a chilly minus 40 degrees.

My brother, Jim, my cousin Janice, who is the daughter of my uncle, and I were meeting at my brother's home to begin to pull together the history of our Finnish grandparents, Andy and Katri Jacobson.

After my mother died in 2006, the cousins made a promise to not let too much time pass us by before we wrote the story of their lives. Descendants of hardy, self-reliant Finns who travelled by covered wagon to Oregon to begin a new life, my grandparents were homesteaders and wheat farmers in Barons, Alta., when free land became available in the province to settlers.

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Katri and Andy wanted much more for their four children when they settled on the prairies in 1908, as they had been denied the chance to further their own schooling. Working hard just to survive on their farm during the Depression years, they valued education highly but money was hard to find.

They scrimped and saved to send their eldest, Larry, to university to become a successful entomologist, but their money soon ran out for their other son, Wes. He was needed on the farm to help our grandfather and eventually took it over.

Our grandmother, Katri, had a dream, however, that went against the culture of her time: to send her two daughters, Helen and Irene, to university in the 1930s.

The prevailing sentiments during those years suggested that educating women was a waste of money since they would get married, stay home and have children. Fortunately for my mother, Irene, and my Aunt Helen, Katri had the energy and the fortitude to turn her ambitions into reality.

There was very little extra money available from the family farm because wheat prices fluctuated widely and there was always a need to acquire new equipment. Pioneer women in Alberta used their egg money to purchase items for the family outside the usual farm budget. Raising chickens and collecting eggs were for Katri's use exclusively and my grandfather knew better than to try to change her mind about sending her daughters to university.

Riding the train from Barons to Lethbridge, Alta., on a weekly basis to sell her eggs and bank the money for her daughters' tuition, Katri was determined to succeed. My mother was three years older than her peers when she started university because it had taken Katri a long time to save the money.

Irene and Helen were successful in their studies and my grandmother was justly proud of their achievements.

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Helen graduated from the University of Alberta and became the head dietitian at Calgary General Hospital in the 1950s and 1960s. It was unheard of during those days for a woman to aspire to, never mind attain, a top leadership position in a large hospital. Helen, who never married, is still alive at 97 and lives in Calgary.

Irene graduated from the University of British Columbia and became a social worker in the adoption field for the Montreal, Ottawa and Hamilton Children's Aid Societies. She also raised five children - Jim, Kathy, Peggy, Bob and Sue - with her scientist husband, Jim, in Ottawa. Irene died at 91 in Hamilton.

How did Grandma Jacobson's sacrifices and love for learning continue through the subsequent generations? This was the burning question in our minds as we sorted through our family history during our time in Winnipeg.

I thank Grandma Jacobson for being an inspiration, as we three are the result of her vision. For Janice and me, education has always been a calling even though she grew up in Alberta and I was raised in Ontario. Both of us have taken on a variety of roles throughout our careers as educators - teacher, principal, consultant, university lecturer.

Jim, our family historian and well-regarded researcher, is deeply involved in aboriginal issues across North America. There are other stories about our grandmother's rich legacy still to be written from other branches of the Jacobson family.

My grandmother is one of my role models with her belief that education sets you free. I only met her once or twice as she lived far away in Alberta, but her story about saving her egg money had a tremendous impact on my life.

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Grandma Jacobson's egg money is being paid forward and is part of my legacy now and for the future. A scholarship at McMaster University in Hamilton was established in my parents' names in 1987 to support aspiring scientists and educators at the graduate level. The egg money also provides financing through Plan Canada to young girls in developing countries who would not have a chance to attend school.

As we read through the journals and letters from Katri and Andy's early years that were stored in an old trunk at Jim's place, we marvelled that our grandmother ensured her daughters were educated during that era. The week in Winnipeg taught me that families and their rich legacies endure for a long time, and it is important to discover the past in order to learn about - and appreciate - the personal sacrifices made.

M.L. (Peggy) Morrison lives in Oakville, Ont.

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