Pioneer’s spirit stays strong

Recent honours bestowed on a stay-at-home mom speak loudly to the value of all who are prepared to work quietly in the shadows while others seek their spot in the limelight.

Doris Towers refelcts on a lifetime of mothering and service.

Doris Towers refelcts on a lifetime of mothering and service.

Recent honours bestowed on a stay-at-home mom speak loudly to the value of all who are prepared to work quietly in the shadows while others seek their spot in the limelight.

Seated by the fireplace in the retirement home where she now lives, Doris Towers still has the mighty grip of a prairie farmer and the blunt sense of humour that buoyed her through years of rearing children and livestock while her husband fulfilled his calling, including multiple terms as MP for Red Deer and an appointment as Alberta’s lieutenant-governor.

Doris Nicholson was 19 years old in 1940 when she married Gordon Towers, whose principal attraction appears to have been his persistence in courting her.

“He just kept coming back.”

The Nicholson family had been farming in the Springvale district, southeast of Red Deer and adjoining the Willowdale district, where the Towers family had proven up their homestead.

Gordon and Doris met at a dance.

No, says Doris, it wasn’t love at first sight. But Gordon became a regular visitor at her family’s farm, located on the opposite side of the ridge.

Recalling his marriage proposal, she said he approached the subject with simple logic.

“He felt riding across the flats was too much — I should come over there.”

So she did.

The young couple had been married for five years when their first child, Tom, was born. Gary was born three years later, followed by Lynda in 1951 and Ross in 1956.

A second daughter, Leona, was already in her mid-teens when she was unofficially adopted into the household in 1974, after the older ones had all grown up.

Tom, who still ranches in the same area, recalls that the house was rarely empty when he was a youngster and that there were almost always extra people around the supper table.

Among them was an old bachelor, Bruce, who seems to have just showed up one day. He never had much to say, says Doris. He’d just finish his meal and go upstairs to bed.

While he was a man of few words, Bruce did make one statement that still tickles Tom’s funnybone.

“This is something we were always kind of wondering about, too, because the day Gary was born, he went to town to Eaton’s — he always hung out around the old Eaton’s coffee counter — and he was telling everybody: ‘We got a son.’ ”

As the laughter dies down, Doris wags a motherly finger at her three children. Ross, the youngest, is still at work so has missed the afternoon visit.

“No way, José,” she says with a big grin.

Humour has always been an essential ingredient in the Towers home, says Doris.

It was humour that helped ease the fears in 1973, just before Christmas, when she was stricken with a life-threatening infection.

Doctors felt she had a one in 100 chance of pulling through.

While her family feared that she wouldn’t make it through the night, Doris took it on the chin.

“I thought, if the Lord doesn’t want me, then the devil might.”

That was the year the family got a taste of what their house would be like without their mother.

“Well, Mom really is the one that was in the house and kept the fire going, because Dad was really busy with the lodge and politics and church and curling,” says Tom.

“We’d come home from school and, well, Dad wasn’t home most of the time so it didn’t much matter. But if you went in the house and Mom wasn’t there, then the house was empty.”

Gary, recently retired from agricultural sales, says his father had always wanted to play a role in his community and always seemed to rise to the top in any organization he joined.

Local people started pressuring him in the early 1960s to run for office and he made a couple of failed attempts before winning a seat in the House of Commons for the first time in 1972 with Robert Stanfield’s Conservatives.

Doris says she was “not very happy” about her husband’s decision to enter politics, but did what she could to support him.

And when she was required to make a social appearance or entertain political guests, she accepted the duty with every ounce of grace she could muster, says Lynda.

She and her husband Rob Purdie run a cattle and guest ranch on the Delburne road, a few minutes east of Red Deer.

Gordon held his seat for 17 years, deciding not to run again in the 1988 election.

Doris was relieved to have her husband at home, although he did have a tendency to get under foot.

While he was serving the public, she had been serving the community in her own way, volunteering her time as secretary for her church and helping out with Westerner Days.

Then, only months after leaving office, Gordon had a stroke.

She and her children nursed him through a slow recovery.

Doris was not pleased on the day when Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney called to invite him back into public life. On March 11, 1991, Gordon Towers was appointed Alberta’s 13th lieutenant-governor.

He seemed to thrive on the job, says Tom. It wasn’t until five years later, after his appointment was finished, that his health again started to fail.

Gordon Towers died in 1999 on June 8 — Doris’s and Lynda’s birthday.

Looking back on her years as the woman behind the man behind the mic, Doris says she was happy with her place in the background.

Earlier this fall, the Red Deer & District Community Foundation chose Doris Towers for the Lifetime Achievement Award during its third annual Women of Excellence Award.

She says she feels honoured for the recognition and thankful to have raised a happy and healthy family.

“I feel very fortunate that we are as close as we are. My kids, as far as I know, they’ve been good.”