Irene Wright, Rimbey’s Confidante
by Fred Schutz
Irene Wright was already launched into her lifelong avocation of helping others when I first knew her. I was in my first year of high school, and she was 10 years my senior. The year was 1937 and Irene was a busy volunteer in an era in which that word held only military connotations for most people.
Irene liked people, and she loved to mingle. That winter of 1937-38 I would meet her and get to know her at birthday parties, at skating parties on the Blindman River or on Cooper’s Lake, or at young people’s get-togethers, either community-or church-sponsored, at any of which she might be the oldest person in the group. While she was congenial with all age groups, she was especially popular with the younger set. She knew games to play, songs to sing, and ways to get even the shyest wallflower into the mix and enjoying the evening. Her very presence would assure any party’s success.
I also knew Irene in her white-collar role, as the person who represented the town of Rimbey to the people of Rimbey. I remember climbing some wooden steps to the door of the Rimbey town office, a wood-frame, false-fronted building on Main Street East that was the village equivalent of city hall. On the right, as you entered, a long, medium-high wooden counter separated the public from the work area. It was across this counter that you conducted your business with the town or Irene. Here she was less jolly, less personal and more business like, but always cheerful. Rarely do I remember her being grouchy, but she could be.
Irene served the village, and the town for a total of 38 years, first as assistant secretary under Bert Saunsers, then as town secretary, and finally as secretary treasurer. Her starting salary was $50 per month. She had her own unique but very tidy system of bookkeeping. An examination of the records in the town office will reveal that Irene was the annual recipient of an excellent inspector’s report. “Miss Wright’s minute books give a clear, concise picture of council meetings and the business conducted therein,” states one such report. The town office served as tax collection centre not only for the town of Rimbey, but for the County of Ponoka, and Irene made a monthly trip to the town of Ponoka to deliver the take, much of which would be in cash half a century ago. She sometimes carried as much as $10,000 in her purse with no thought of worry or concern.
When the County of Ponoka came into being in 1943, Irene had an opportunity to move to a position in the county office. “I made the decision to remain in Rimbey.”she told me in 1975, “and I have always been thankful that I did. This is where my friends are. It’s where I belong.” Irene’s father, T.N. “Uncle Tommy” Wright, remained with her for eight more years, until his death in 1951. Irene’s mother passed away in 1934. Irene retired from her position with the town on August 28, 1975. She was their third secretary over a 56 year period.
Irene’s secretarial abilities were recognized and utilized by various other organizations in the town of Rimbey, usually with little or no remuneration. For a time she kept the books for the Chronic Convalescent Hospital, and for decades she was secretary and record-keeper and researcher for the Mount Auburn Cemetary which was not far from the town office. She also took her turn as president of the Oldtimers’ Association. Secretary for her church was another of the volunteer positions that this busy person took on for a period of time.
The church played a very important role in Irene’s life. From their first arrival in the district in 1917, the Wright family attended the Church of the Nazarene, newly established in Rimbey in 1916. At age 13 Irene began playing piano for Sunday school, and she continued to play in the Nazarene Church for well over half a century. She was blessed with what has been described as a “strong, vibrant soprano voice” and a love of music. The piano was her instrument of choice, and she taught herself to transpose music. She could pick up a tune quicker than most. She was in constant demand to sing solos at weddings, wedding anniversaries, birthday parties, house parties and funerals. More than one person who heard Irene sing at weddings and funerals has said that they did not know her church affiliation since she sang at every church in Rimbey, and some outside of the town. She led the Nazarene Church Choir for a time, and sang regularly there.
Irene Wright was born in Manvil, North Dakota in 1910. At the age of seven she came to the Lavesta district west of Rimbey with her parents and two brothers. Later the family moved to a farm immediately south of the village. On accepting the position in the office in 1938, she moved to a house in Rimbey and spent the remainder of her life in the town among a wide circle of friends. Her final years were spent in Rimbey’s extended-care facility, a victim of Alzheimer’s disease. She died October 24, 1992, but she will be remembered in her home town for a long time to come.
Never married, with no dependents of her own, she made the people of the community her surrogate parents and grandparents; her children and grandchildren. If they needed her she treated them as she would her own flesh and blood. Irene Wright was counsellor, consultant and confidante, and a good friend in the bargain, to generations of people spanning most of the 20th century in the upper Blindman valley. It was good to have known her.