On a recent phone interview from her home in Calgary, Alice Airriess spoke with the Kamsack Times about turning 100 years old and her fond memories of growing up on a farm near the village of Togo.
The year was 1920 when Alfred John and Sarah Elizabeth Airriess (nee Tanner), arrived in Togo with their five children to build a homestead. At the time, Sarah was pregnant with her sixth child, who the couple would name Alice. While the new country home was still under construction, Alice Airriess was born in her Uncle Darcy’s cabin on a St. Patrick’s Day - March 17, 1921.
As Alice grew up, the family worked hard to clear the wild brush and rocks on untouched land to prepare the soil for farming. The first born daughter, who everyone called “Dot,” was ten years older than Alice. Alice describes Dot as a “second mother” to her, pitching in from a young age to help her busy mom who would go on to have six more children after Alice.
“Oh, I had such a wonderful childhood,” recalled Airriess. “My brothers would have to help our father with all of the farm work - the grain, the threshing. I was free to wander around and pick bouquets of lovely wildflowers. I can still remember the name of every flower I picked out there.”
In her early years, Airriess attended the Mylor School, which sat about a mile-and-a-half from the family homestead. The single room schoolhouse hosted approximately 30 students from grades 1 through 8.
“I quit school for a while when I was 15,” shared Airriess. “In fact, everybody in Togo quit school around that age. I did get to go back and finish my Grade 12, but I was one of the lucky ones. Very few of us got to attend high school in those days – which was a four-mile walk from our farm.
“On the very cold days, my dad would feel for us, and he would come out to pick us up with the wagon or sleigh. He would have blankets and hot rocks ready. We would huddle together under the blankets and put our feet on the rocks to warm up. He did the same for us during those nasty dust storms in the 1930s. The clouds were so thick, you could barely see anything. They looked like ocean waves, turning over and over, barreling in from across the prairie. My dad would whip the horses to get us home and try to beat them before they hit.”
When she turned 18, Airriess enlisted in the Canadian Army. She moved to Regina for training and earned the position of sergeant. A year later, Airriess was shipped overseas where she spent the first months in London. She was then transferred to France, and following that, Belgium.
While stationed in Antwerp, Airriess worked along the front lines in an office fielding incoming and outgoing messages to families back in Canada. She recalls hearing the sounds of large artillery as she worked long shifts as part of a 24-hour crew. During one of those shifts, a German V2 rocket blasted the immediate area. Airriess was pelted with glass from the explosion, cutting into her face, narrowly missing her eyes.
Airriess was granted leave to return to Togo, but soon after arriving home, the war had ended and she would not be shipped out again. Airriess remembers one of her brothers, Frank, who had been captured when Hong Kong fell in 1941 and held as a prisoner of war in Formosa (now Taiwan). Citing brutal conditions, Airriess said Frank died just after liberation on a homeward bound ship and was buried in Yokohama. Airriess says her mother arranged for a lake to be named after her fallen brother. Airriess Lake, as it is known today, is located in the back country of Northern Saskatchewan, near the village of Pinehouse Lake. Although she has never seen it, Airriess said she still longs to make the trip to visit the lake to remember and honour her brother.
Airriess would go on to attend the University of Saskatchewan where she studied home economics. She would later transfer to the University of Toronto, where she graduated as a dietician in the class of 1951. A career soon followed – as a dietician at Yorkton General Hospital and then the Ninette Sanatorium South of Brandon, Man. She would go on to teach home economics at Alexander Henry High School in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.
Her father, Alfred would suffer a fall in his 70s, hitting his head and eventually passing from a brain hemorrhage. Despite a diagnosis of diabetes, mother, Sarah would manage her disease until she passed in her 80s.
In 1967, Airriess had a son, Chris, and moved to Calgary to live close to her younger sister, Joyce. Airriess would continue to teach at a local junior high school and then serve as a substitute teacher in Calgary until her retirement.
It was during her retirement years that Airriess would rekindle her love of travel. Along with her youngest sister, Isobel, and an assortment of friends, she would travel independently or with Elderhostel, as it was known until the name changed to Road Scholar in 2010. The not-for-profit organization originated in 1975 and has been offering educational travel adventures for the past 40 years, with most participants being over the age of 50. A highlight for Airriess was travelling on a boat trip through Russia, visiting St. Petersburg and Moscow.
Airriess’ only child, Chris, currently lives in San Diego with his wife and two youngest children. With his Ph.D. in cardiovascular physiology, he serves as CEO of Cortechs.ai, driving the strategic development of the company that pioneered the application of volumetric MRI to routine clinical practice. Chris describes his mom as “a formidable scrabble player” who was so brilliant at the game, she once placed second in the Alberta Seniors Games tournament.
“She beats me every time I play her,” he confided. “It’s not unusual for her to rack up over 400 points a game. Along with her extremely healthy eating and consistent exercise over the years, it may be part of the reason she is still so sharp.”
Airriess was never a smoker or drinker. Throughout her senior years, she kept active with regular exercise, including plenty of hiking. Although her legs are no longer able to take her on hikes and she is nearly blind, Airriess is energetic and charming, erupting into hearty laughter when reminiscing about her adventures.
“She’s the kind of mom that everyone loved to be around,” shared Chris. “I used to bring my college buddies over and she would have this ability to whip up food and make sure that no one left our home hungry. I think it was from growing up through the depression. If friends stopped by, another chair would be pulled up to the table and everyone was fed.”