Marjorie (Richmond) Douglas, an alumna of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information old enough to have lived through the Spanish Flu, recently celebrated her 110th birthday with a COVID-19-compliant party. There were no candles, the cake was composed of individual cupcakes and Happy Birthday was recorded in advance instead of performed live. Guests attended in person – at a distance – and on Zoom.
“It's not how anyone would have predicted such an event a few months ago, but it worked,” said her son and U of T alumnus Robert Douglas, describing how on Sept. 13, the morning rain cleared and the sun shone through, allowing masked guests to gather under a marquee tent while a large contingent joined online.
Special guests included Han Dong, a local Member of Parliament, and Shelley Carroll, a local city councillor. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Toronto Mayor John Tory also sent their greetings and, later in the week, congratulatory letters arrived from Governor General Julie Payette, Ontario Premier Doug Ford – even the Queen.
Robert also read aloud letters from U of T President Meric Gertler, Faculty of Information Dean Wendy Duff and Michael Benarroch, president of the University of Manitoba, Marjorie’s other alma mater.
Born in Winnipeg in 1910, Marjorie graduated with a BA from the University of Manitoba in 1931. Encouraged by her mother, she boarded the train to Toronto where the Library School had been established three years earlier. A book lover since childhood, she had a job lined up with the Winnipeg Public Library upon graduation.
A photo of Marjorie Douglas’s graduating class in 1932 at what was then known as the Library School (photo courtesy of U of T Faculty of Information)
Marjorie lived in a women’s boarding house on Madison Avenue, a short walk to her cataloguing and classification classes, which were held at the Ontario College of Education on Bloor Street. In an interview with the faculty’s alumni magazine in 2012, the year she was presented with a U of T Chancellor’s Medal honouring the 80th anniversary of her graduation, Marjorie talked about her fond memories of Winifred Barnstead, the first director of the Library School and Bertha Bassam, Barnstead’ successor.
She also reminisced about her lasting friendship with classmate Ruth McKenzie showing off a signed copy of her late friend’s best-selling book on Laura Secord. Looking over her old photos, Marjorie was struck by how much more formal clothing was back then. “We wore dresses, nice shoes, and never wore slacks,” she said.
After completing her librarianship diploma in 1932, Marjorie learned that Depression-era cutbacks meant the position she had been promised in Winnipeg had been scaled back to a few hours per week so she wrote to “Miss Barnstead,” as she still called her, for help. She was in luck. Barnstead knew that Trinity College needed a cataloguer who was familiar with the Dewey Decimal System.
Marjorie shortly found herself back at U of T, this time as an employee. While on campus a few years later, she met George Douglas, a Knox College divinity student. They married in 1938 and moved to Niagara Falls where George took his first parish as a Presbyterian minister. Toward the end of the Second World War, Douglas served as a chaplain in the Royal Canadian Navy. After the war, the couple lived in Woodstock, Ont. for 15 years, where Marjorie concentrated on raising her sons George and Robert.
In 1961, her husband was offered the position of Librarian at Knox College on the condition that he get a degree in library science. “My mother used to joke that she enjoyed being able to tell him how to run a library,” said Robert, adding that his father graduated with his master’s degree in library science from Columbia University at age 58.
Looking to resume her career, Marjorie walked into the North York Public Library. After quickly checking with U of T, the library offered her a job on the spot. She worked part-time classifying and cataloguing books until her retirement 13 years later. “By the early 70s, the world was just starting to use computers – just as I was retiring,” she said. “We used white ink on the spine to record the book’s numbers using the Dewey System.”
Marjorie, whose husband died in 1990, credits her longevity to good genes, noting that her mother lived well into her nineties. Her 101-year-old brother Dick Richmond, a retired aeronautical engineer, regularly visits his sister and was named to the Order of Canada earlier this year. He was on hand to propose the champagne toast at her birthday party.
At her retirement residence, Marjorie kept active well into her 11th decade, participating in organized activities, regularly attending “sit and be fit” classes, playing bridge and earning the nickname “Queen of Scrabble.” She sees Robert, who lives in Toronto, regularly, and George and his family, who live in Kanata Ont., as much as possible. Marjorie has a grandson, granddaughter, four great grandsons and one great granddaughter. “Every day is a gift,” she said in her 2012 interview. “I’m thankful for that. I feel that you have to keep your mind vital and mentally active.”
The strict isolation under COVID-19 confined Marjorie to her suite for several months and restricted visits from family. No residents have contacted the virus to date, but the inability to walk outside her suite has reduced Marjorie’s mobility and she has had to replace her walker with a wheelchair. Her concentration and short-term memory are also not as keen as they used to be.
In spite of these constraints, Robert says his mother greatly enjoyed her birthday party and the chance to talk one-on-one to guests both in person and online. “We were really happy at how she rose to the occasion,” he said.