News Provincial Rockies

Jasper Treasures: Olga Dowling

Olga and Bob Dowling are pictured at Wilcox Ridge around 2016, the last of many times they climbed up to one of their favourite viewpoints. (Supplied photo)

With her upbeat, positive manner, talking with Olga Dowling is an energizing experience.

Dowling was born at home on Oct. 27, 1926 in the Elk Point area, east of Edmonton, to Theodora and Samuel Yewchin. She was the sixth of eight children – four girls and four boys – all born at home as there were no doctors in the area.

The family made a living on 160 acres of land.

“We had everything you could put on a farm – cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys,” Dowling said. “That’s a lot of work.” 

At the same time, she joked that all the animals “were mostly for us to play with, I think.”

The Yewchin youngsters walked to school and as fortune would have it, they didn’t have to go as far as some of the other students.

“We had a school built on our farm, a two-room school,” Dowling said.

One room was for students in Grades 1-6, the second was for Grades 6-10. Dowling said there was no electricity in their house or the school in those days and no running water “except when we ran to the well and back.”

A sister and a brother died of scarlet fever when they were toddlers.

“With all the hardship, we had an awful lot of fun at our place,” Dowling said.

When it came time for Grades 11 and 12, the Yewchin youth moved to Elk Point to finish school.

“Our mom would find us a place with a family,” Dowling said.

In one of those years, she and her younger sister had their own space – a bachelor pad.

Dowling graduated from high school in 1946.

“I think at that time the things available (as careers) were a secretary, teacher and nurse; women didn’t have too much choice,” she said.

“I always wanted to be a nurse so it fell into my plans. I made an application to go into training for nursing in the fall of 1946, in Lamont, where there was a nursing school.”

Dowling spent the next three years studying nursing and lived in a nurses residence. Students wore striped uniforms.

In the summer of 1949, final exams had to be written in Edmonton. The rules were clear: Dowling remembered the instructors saying, “Here’s your papers. You can start now.”

“When the bell rang, if you weren’t finished, too bad,” she said.

After all that work, Dowling and her classmates celebrated at the King Edward Hotel and had their first beers.

“We were so happy,” she said. “Our class became very close. It was like one big bunch of sisters – there were 16 women.”

After the celebration, the happy group was driven back to Lamont in a bus.

“They did have graduation services,” Dowling said. “We became full-fledged nurses – white dresses, starched hats. Our parents were there to witness it.”

Now officially nurses, Dowling and her friend Evelyn decided to move to Camrose to work at a hospital. They were paid $125 a month.

After about a year, the two decided to see a bit of Canada. They first went to Prince George. The setting there presented a learning curve of sorts.

“The hospital was old army huts,” Dowling said. “It was very, very primitive. It was mostly a logging town. People worked in the lumber industry (and) would come into town on the weekends.”

Looking at the sunny side of life, Dowling noted how it was good to learn how to do things without the help of others.

“The army huts weren’t very well equipped with medical apparatus,” she said. “There were 20 people to a room. Huts were divided into womens’ and mens’ wards. It was a very good learning experience, for about a year.”

Chilliwack, B.C. was next for the travelling nurses.

“It was a lovely town and a beautiful hospital, with a nurses’ residence,” Dowling said. “Apple trees were blooming.”

Her friend left in late summer to go home and get married. Dowling had already met her future husband Bob in Camrose.

“We wrote letters back and forth,” she said. “I still have those letters.”

She went to work at the Vancouver General Hospital. Bob was studying pharmacy at the University of British Columbia. They were married in September of 1952 at an Anglican Church in Vancouver.

“In December, Bob decided to go back to Alberta to the University of Alberta (U of A),” Dowling said.

Dowling was reluctant to return to Alberta, but while Bob finished studies at the U of A she worked at the university’s hospital.

After Bob graduated in 1955 they moved up to Peace River, in northern Alberta where there was an opening at a pharmacy.

“It was a dusty, small town at that point,” Dowling said.

She worked at the hospital but when they couldn’t find a decent place to live for three months, they decided to move south to Sexsmith, just north of Grande Prairie, where they lived for the next three years.

“I worked at a drugstore,” Dowling said. “Sexsmith is a tiny town but had a huge farming community. We absolutely loved it. We probably would have stayed there but this business of Jasper came up.”

She and Bob arrived in town Oct. 31, 1958 after answering the call for a pharmacist at a local drug store. The Dowlings had friends from Camrose, John and Pat Moxness, and joined forces with them to purchase Neely’s Pharmacy.

Soon after they arrived in Jasper, Dowling and Bob answered another call: parenthood.

“I was very happy to have a little baby girl, Lori, on Nov. 4, 1958,” Dowling said.

Their son, Robert, was born on March 3, 1960.

Dowling said when she and Bob moved to Jasper, housing was in the same state as it is now – difficult to find. They lived in an apartment on Connaught Drive, across from the train station at first, then rented a home a while later. In 1962 they had a house built, which they lived in until May 2018.

Dowling worked occasionally as a private care nurse at the hospital when someone was needed.

“I worked at night because Bob would be home sleeping,” she said.

In about 1968 Dowling worked as a public health nurse for two afternoons a week. The office was based at Jasper Elementary School.

“Anyone who wanted to see us made an appointment,” she said. “We inoculated children. New moms came there. People who were travelling also came there to be inoculated. I did that for just over a year until the fall of 1969. Then my husband got involved in politics.”

Bob won an election to serve as the MLA for the Edson constituency. Edmonton was his base but he came home on weekends.

“I stayed home; my responsibility was to help with the stores,” Dowling said. “By that time we had two stores to look after.”

That included Neely’s Pharmacy, renamed Cavell Drugs, and Whistler Drugs.

Myron Kowalyk, a pharmacist from Banff, assisted at the stores. He and his wife Ellen became Dowlings’ partners after the Moxness’ moved on.

Bob served as an MLA until 1980.

“He decided he’d had enough,” Dowling said.

Bob was asked to be the commissioner for Alberta’s 75th anniversary and the Dowlings moved to Edmonton where they lived for the next six years. Dowling volunteered at the Cross Cancer Institute. In 1986, the Dowlings moved to Vancouver for a year where Bob was in charge of the Alberta pavilion in EXPO 1986.

“In 1988 we came back to Jasper and have been here ever since,” Dowling said.

Bob got involved in the Canadian Executive Service Organization, an international development agency.

For about five years, starting 1989 with Jasper as a base, the Dowlings travelled to a variety of countries, including the Czech Republic, Romania, the Ukraine, Ireland and the Philippines, assisting with business initiatives.

Dowling said it was a rewarding experience.

“While we were gone Myron looked after the drug stores,” Dowling said.

Over the years, Dowling and Bob volunteered in various capacities in the community. They spent time golfing and hiking, including heli-hiking in British Columbia and “a little leisure travel” to different places. They were also skiers, both downhill and cross-country.

The couple moved to Alpine Summit Seniors Lodge when they sold their home in 2018. Bob passed away in 2019. They were married close to 67 years with Dowling noting they had a good life together.

These days, Dowling is keeping busy at the lodge.

“I do a lot of reading and do puzzles,” she said. “I get outside as much as I can. It’s a wonderful place to be. There’s excellent care and the staff are amazing.”

Jasper, she added, “is where we belonged.”

By Joanne McQuarrie, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter/Jasper Fitzhugh