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Bernadette Leslie: A career in history

Everybody Has a Story

In 1979, Bernadette Leslie took up a summer position at the Fred Light Museum. The rest, as they say, is history. 

Bernie, as she is commonly known, has had a 36-year career with the museum – with no plans to wind down anytime soon. 

The director curator of the Fred Light Museum came to Battleford from the farming community of Cando, where her family, the O’Driscolls, still farm. 

 “I started at a job at SaskTel,” she says. “I quit there just before I got married. In 1979 I had applied for a summer position here and received it, so I worked here in 1979 as a student and they asked me back as a student in 1980.”

It seems the museum benefactor, local historian Fred Light, was impressed with her work.

“He talked to the Town [of Battleford] and they asked me to come back every year since that,” says Bernie, who now works at the museum eight months of the year. “I’ve been here ever since.”

The young Bernie had already been bitten by the history bug on a graduation-present trip to Ireland, where her father was born. She’d visited his younger brother’s home, which was chock full of artifacts, some from the Victorian age, including a playing desk on which Queen Victoria herself had played checkers.

That trip sparked an interest in history, especially how artifacts could bring the people of history to life. She was further inspired by the years she worked alongside Fred Light, an avid collector whose collection had become the basis for a museum named after him, housed in a building owned by the Town of Battleford and officially opened in 1980.

Light, who was born in the barracks at Fort Battleford, the son of an early North West Mounted Police officer, was a good teacher, she says.

“He taught me a lot of about the artifacts, setting up displays, doing research on finding different information, either on people or on artifacts,” says Bernie.

She says they had a good working relationship, even though the long-time gas station owner had a reputation for being ... “colourful.”

“A lot of people asked over the years, ‘How can you work with that cantankerous old person?’ I’d say, ‘I’ve always had a good relationship.’”

If he seemed cantankerous at times with certain people, she chuckles, perhaps they deserved it. He really had a soft heart, she explains.

“He put on an act, and you could see through it.”

Throughout her years working with him until his retirement, and even now, since his death in 1998, she has always referred to her mentor as Mr. Light.

“I always called him Mr. Light,” says Bernie. “He even said a couple of times, ‘Why don’t you call me Fred?’”

Bernie explains, “I guess I am old school. I was always brought up that if somebody is older than you and they are your boss you call them Mr. or Mrs.”

Working with the quicksilver older man could have been called a series of adventures, as he would turn his hand to anything and took on many of the renovations the museum needed himself. One experience she’ll never forget was helping him paint the windows of the three-storey former St. Vital School.

“He had scaffolding up to the top of the gunroom and said, ‘Bernie, undo the ropes and go downstairs and just move it while I’m up here.’”

With reservations, she undid the ropes and went downstairs to begin moving the scaffolding, which was on wheels.

But Light had missed untying one of the ropes attached to the lettering on the front of the museum and the scaffolding began to wobble.

“It kind of wobbled this way and started going this way,” Bernie demonstrates with arm movements.

She ran out of the way, thinking the whole thing would “come down with Mr. Light on it.” But he had caught it up in time and everyone was safe.

“He was 80-something-years-old,” she exclaims. “He’d take on anything.”

Bernie was newly married when she began work at the museum. Now she and husband Lyle are the parents of two and grandparents of five.

Tamille, their daughter, lives in Saskatoon. She is a married stay-at-home mom.

“In fact, she just had a baby on the 24th,” says Bernie.

Tamille now has three children.

Son Ames, who lives in Battleford and works for Cargill, is recently married. His wife brings two more grandchildren into the family.

Ames is a member of Battleford’s town council, Bernie’s employers, and she’s proud of his interest in his community.

“I think it’s a good thing, but if anything comes up with the museum he has to step out because otherwise it would be a conflict of interest,” says his mom. “He’s stepped up a lot and represented the town as deputy mayor. He’s done well.”

Her kids grew up with the Fred Light Museum and have also developed a love of history.

“They came here with me to the museum in the mornings before school, after school.”

Bernie says they would bring their friends over and take them through the museum as their guides.

They were proud of “Mom’s museum.” 

But the museum isn’t Bernie’s only job. She and her husband, Lyle, operate a small personal care home for the elderly. Currently they care for three seniors.

“The youngest is 83 and the oldest is 97,” says Bernie, who has enjoyed learning even more history from the residents she’s cared for since establishing their care home 17 years ago.

“I was looking for something to do in winter months when laid off here,” says Bernie. At the time, she was working at the museum for six months of the year.

It so happened one of her uncles and her husband’s grandmother needed a place to stay. She talked to another local care home operator who told Bernie it was a fulfilling experience, so the Leslies decided it was a good fit for them.

The idea was for Bernie to stay at home to care for their clients for six months while Lyle found work elsewhere, then he would stay at home for the six months Bernie was at the museum. But, Bernie was offered two additional months at the museum, and Lyle ended up working full time at their care home.

Among their first guests were two of Bernie’s uncles, both Catholic priests. Enjoying success with their new venture, Bernie said, “If I can work with family, I can work with anybody.”

In fact, her mother, widowed in 1999, also came to live with Bernie. She passed away two years ago.

“I still miss her a lot,” says Bernie. “Mom was in my care home with us for seven years. We had a good relationship. It’s hard still.”

Her mother was a member of the local Graw family.

“I have a lot of relatives in the area, and I have eight brothers and sisters. I come from a large family.”

In fact, Bernie has a twin sister.

“She doesn’t look like me. She has dark hair and is tinier. We’re fraternal twins.”

She says her mother had another set of twins two years later, a girl and boy.

“We looked back three or four generations before there were any twins there.”

Bernie adds with a laugh, “Mom made it up by having two sets.”

At one point, she says, her mother had six children five years old and younger. 

“She had her hands full.”

Bernie is the third oldest, with two older brothers, and her twin being born seven minutes after she was.

Within her family, arthritis is common, and Bernie has been afflicted as well.

“In 2010, I had a double hip replacement.”

A few people said, “You’re so young!” says Bernie. But arthritis has no age, she points out.

Her twin, the other set of twins and her mother have all had to have hip replacements.

Her only regret is that she had them both done close together, making the recovery more difficult.

“I wish I had either done both at the same time or waited longer. I had one done in August another one done in December, and having them that close together, the one you had just had done hasn’t healed. It puts more pressure on the one done earlier.”

It worked out well in the end, but Bernie says if anybody had asked she would have said, “Wait at least six months in between.”

A more recent health problem has also brought a change to Bernie’s life.

“Three years ago, in June of 2012, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I had complete mastectomy on my right breast,” she says.

It was stage one.

“We caught it early because I do self examinations all the time.”

She didn’t have to do any chemo or radiation. 

“I have been cancer free for three years,” she says, and she’s had a test done on the possibility of it coming back. 

“If it had been 13 per cent or higher they would have recommend some kind of chemo, but I was below. I was eight per cent for a chance of it ever coming back, so they said, ‘No don’t put yourself through that.’”

Bernie says it may be an oxymoron to say that she was lucky, but she only has to take hormone pills.

“That’s bad enough as it is.” 

“My lymph nodes were all clear, she adds. “I caught it soon enough.”

That’s why she advocates for women to do breast self examinations every month.

Now that her health has improved, she plans to do some golfing and maybe return to skiing as well.

“If I had time for a hobby, it would be golf,” she declares.

Spare time is rare for Bernie, however.

“I don’t really have time. I used to do volunteer work with the Heart and Stroke Foundation, canvassing, but with opening up the care home I just didn’t have time to do a good job of it,” says Bernie. “When I leave here I go back home and I take care of the ladies until they go to bed about eight o’clock, have some time to do my paperwork then hit the hay myself.”

If she did have the time, she would also enjoy travelling, especially visiting national parks.

“I’m more the outdoor person” she says.

When their children were small, the family went camping nearly every weekend in the summer. She emphasizes they didn’t have a camper or trailer.

“It was all tent!” she laughs.

With a clean bill of health, Bernie has no plans to retire any time soon. Presently, she is the only staff at the museum, with the three summer students having gone back to school. The museum is now open only five days a week, instead of seven, and it’s quieter, but there is still plenty of traffic.

“People don’t stop going on holidays at the end of August,” she says.

The museum will be open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. until the end of October. During the summer, the museum is open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week.

“Most places are closed at five, so we get a lot of people who appreciate that we are open until eight, looking for information or something to do, so they come to see the museum.”

Over the course of the year, about 3,500 people from all over the world pass through the museum doors.

She enjoys talking with the people who visit. Sometimes they are only there for directions, but it’s still important that everyone is treated in a friendly manner, she says.

“I always tell my students how we act with people here is how they go away feeling about Battleford,” says Bernie. “We are the ambassadors of Battleford, I think, and if they go away feeling they weren’t treated right it’s going to reflect badly on Battleford.”

The visitors sometimes help add to the knowledge of the museum, she says, especially the photographs on display. Visitors have helped fill in some of the missing names. A few have also helped identify items in the firearms collection that had previously been labelled unknown.

(Bernie recently received certification for possession and acquisition of firearms so is able to handle the museum’s guns herself without having to call another certificate holder in.) 

If Bernie had to choose a favourite display in the museum, she would say the veterans’ room containing artifacts to do with the First and Second World Wars. But it’s not just the artifacts, it’s the stories of the people who used them that are special to Bernie.

Of the three other rooms, the mustache cups in the general store, the bound copies of the Battleford Press in the Battleford room and the many desks in the schoolroom are among her favourites.

“If they could talk, what kind of stories could they give us of the students that were there,” she wonders.

The mustache cups, made to keep men’s mustaches clean when they sipped, are just so different, says Bernie.

And the Press makes for interesting reading.

Bernie believes the Fred Light Museum is one of the best museums in the province. There is a misconception that the collection is firearms only, she says, but there is a wide variety of artifacts. The main collection is Fred Light’s, but there have been many other items donated or loaned to the museum since then, she says.

The museum enjoys fantastic support from the Town of Battleford, the museum board and the community in general, she says.

“We get a lot of comments from people surprised how [good] it is for a small community,” Bernie says. “People say, ‘What a gem!’”