At 100, Ber­nice Price has led an ac­tive life

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - PAUL WIL­SON

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.

JOHN RENNISON, SPEC­TA­TOR FILE PHOTO

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.

SUP­PLIED PHOTO

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.

SUP­PLIED PHOTO

PAUL WIL­SON, SPE­CIAL TO THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

Ber­nice had to move into the Grace Villa nurs­ing home a few months ago. In 1999, Hamil­ton named her Se­nior of the Year.

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