At 100, Bernice Price has led an active life
Statistics Canada released the latest batch of census results this month.
And the fastest growing age group in Canada is the 100-and-over club, up more than 40 per cent in the past five years. There could be some 40,000 centenarians by 2051.
That’s precisely the year I’d become one. Not necessarily excited about that, but please check back when I’m 99.
I was digesting this information when an email arrived from Jack Branch. This week, his aunt turns 100. Jack mentioned I’d talked to her before.
I remember. It was 15 years ago and the topic was guano, the pigeon kind.
Lots of cities had problems with that, and passed bylaws against feeding pigeons in parks. But Bernice, who had agitated on many matters at Hamilton City Hall, convinced the politicians to take the war one step further — onto private property.
The Bernice bylaw declared that if you fed pigeons in your backyard, and those pigeons then defecated on your neighbour’s patio furniture or fresh laundry, you could be fined.
I had stopped by Bernice’s house on East 13th back then and wondered how she won this fight.
“When I get my teeth into something,” she said, “I shake it until I win.”
So that was then, back when Bernice was a kid of 85. And now nephew Jack is suggesting I see her again.
He says things have taken a hard turn. Bernice was falling a lot and had to go into hospital. A few months ago, she ended up in the Grace Villa nursing home, just off the Linc.
Jack meets me in the lobby there, carrying a binder crammed with his aunt’s life. Newspaper articles, certificates, photos from long ago.
Some days, Jack says, Bernice does well. Other days, not really. We head upstairs.
Bernice is now a wisp of the fighter she used to be. Jack cranks up the bed so she can see us. She manages a smile. She does recall what we last talked about. “Pigeon poop,” she says. She’s in a room for four. She misses her privacy.
She is the last of six children in the Conrad family of Lawrencetown, N.S. Bernice was born two months early. The doctor doubted she’d make it, but they nestled her beside bricks warmed in the oven and fed her with an eyedropper.
“And we here are, 29 years later …” she says. Yes, on this day Bernice believes she’s about to turn 30. (It will be 100 on the cake, served this Saturday in the Oak Chapel at Grace Villa, from 2 to 4 p.m. All are welcome.)
In the war, Bernice was a sergeant with the RCAF women’s police corps, running the fingerprint section.
She worked at the Right House 30 years, a buyer in shoes and notions. She liked casinos, told blue jokes. She outlived two husbands. She volunteered with St. John Ambulance all her life. Her service included duty at the riotous 1975 Pink Floyd concert at Ivor Wynne. That day she witnessed a streaker in action and escorted a fan who’d gone into labour to hospital.
Through letters to the editor and spirited appearances at city hall, she advanced the struggle for free rides on the HSR for those over 80. In 1999 Hamilton named her Senior of the Year.
And five years ago she was awarded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal. There is only one picture over Bernice’s bed; it’s from the day she got that award.
On her left in the photo is city Coun. Bernie Morelli, who died in 2014 at 70. He was her favourite, and he brought the flowers she held that day. She is tired and we wind it up. One more question: “Bernice, you’ve lived long, done many things. Are you ready to go?”
“No,” she says. “Who’s ready to go? Nobody.”
No surrender. It’s a fight to the finish.
Other cities had bylaws against feeding pigeons on public property. But Bernice Price, seen shooing away the birds in Gore Park 15 years ago, convinced Hamilton to take the battle to our backyards.
In the Second World War, Bernice Price ran the fingerprint section in the RCAF women’s division police corp.
Five years ago, they awarded Bernice Price the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal. With her, from left, are former city councillors Scott Duvall (now an MP) and Bernie Morelli, and Ward 6 councillor Tom Jackson. Morelli, who died in 2014, was Bernice’s favourite.
Bernice had to move into the Grace Villa nursing home a few months ago. In 1999, Hamilton named her Senior of the Year.