Mary Alice McKinnon, with her daughter Sharon McKinnon. (Photo by Lana Michelin, Advocate staff).

Red Deer mother boosts family income as an Advocate writer in the 1950s

Mary Alice McKinnon’s ”Sister Sue” stories were popular with kids

For the past 68 years, Mary Alice McKinnon has kept a yellowing letter from 1949, asking her to contribute stories for the then-weekly Red Deer Advocate.

The letter was from former publisher F. P. Galbraith. And the compensation he was offering McKinnon for a weekly fictional children’s tale or Household Hints ‘women’s column,’ was $1.25 each.

“That was good money,” recalled the 97-year-old McKinnon, who now lives at Michener Extendicare.

Her daughter, Sharon McKinnon, agreed $1.25 was a princely sum in the post-war years when a bag of sugar cost just a few pennies.

Nearly seven decades ago, Mary Alice was a young mother who wanted to stay home with her four young children while adding to the family income. Although her husband, Ross McKinnon, held a steady job at the Alpha Milk plant, times were tight.

Mary Alice figured she could use her freelance earnings to buy new clothing for her kids. “They wouldn’t have had it, otherwise,” she recalled.

The Sibbald, Alta. native had always enjoyed writing stories and poems, so she typed up a fictional story aimed at child newspaper readers, and sent it to the Advocate to see if there was interest.

The publisher, F. Philip Galbraith, son of Advocate founder Frances Galbraith (who was also the City of Red Deer’s first mayor and has a Ghosts statue next to City Hall), requested to meet Mrs. McKinnon in person.

She was “scared to death” at this prospect, but found Galbraith “a perfect gentleman.”

His 1949 letter started a five-year arrangement: McKinnon would dash off weekly kids’ stories and columns on her home typewriter, then personally bring them in to the newspaper’s downtown office. Her kids’ tales had such fanciful titles such Ants at the Picnic, The Fairies, Treasure Hunt and Hallowe’en.

They featured pint-sized protagonists Jimmy and Beth, but were based on the real-life escapades of her own children and their friends. “They were mostly nature stories,” recalled Sharon, who grew up on an acreage in what’s now Glendale.

Although McKinnon wrote under the pen name “Sister Sue,’ her identity became known, and she was something of a local celebrity. “Sometimes people would stop me and say they liked my story,” she recalled.

It all ended by the mid-50s when the Advocate became a daily newspaper and needed more stories than McKinnon could produce. She taught herself bookkeeping instead, and the family opened an aquarium store attached to the home, where squirrel monkeys were also sold.

But McKinnon’s writing career had lasting impact. One of her three sons ended up as a reporter at the Advocate in the 1960s, then as a writer and editorial cartoonist at the Toronto Sun in the 1970s.

And Sharon considers her mother a fantastic role model. “She taught all us about hard work, honesty and love — and just to be creative.”

Sharon is currently scrapbook-ing the family history — and including Galbraith’s letter in a thick binder.

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