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Memorable Manitobans: Lillian Gibbons (1906-1996)

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Lillian Gibbons
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Journalist, historian.

Born in Winnipeg on 24 June 1906, daughter of Ernest Gibbons and Alice Gofe [4, 5], her parents later separated and she was raised by a cultured and conservative mother from whom she gained a delicate way of viewing the world around her. Attending the University of Manitoba in the 1920s she became, in 1928, one of its first female gold medalists in history. She returned to the University in the early 1930s to earn a Master’s degree in Canadian history.

She joined the editorial staff of the Winnipeg Tribune, where she specialized instories on Winnipeg history, railways, hotels, and clubs:

“In the dusty Winnipeg newspaper world ... Lillian Gibbons was widely regarded as a character, one of the old breed of “sob-sisters,” those doughty women who had somehow wandered into a man’s profession and who were tolerated as eccentrics and usually given various joe jobs to perform, with no hope of advancement and no status. Such women were often the best journalists on the paper and they were often better educated than many of their male colleagues, but they usually ended up on the society pages, covering teas, weddings, and service club luncheons.” [1]

She worked at the Tribune for 40 years until her retirement in 1972. She never married. Lillian was a true “character”, known as much for her personal appearance as for her personality:

“Ms. Gibbons was everywhere, and always a standout. Frail, pencil-thin, she dressed the same in all seasons. She favoured elegantly cut wool suits in bright colours, fuchsia or lime, which she wore with platform shoes and dainty white gloves. Her colorful appearance seemed like an invitation to connect, but it wasn’t. She rarely made eye contact, could appear and disappear as quickly as a bird.” [2]

She enjoyed walking and watching the horse races at Assiniboia Downs, especially when members of royal family were visiting. Lillian was well known for her frugality, never seeming to buy anything. She read the daily newspapers at the Legislative Library rather than buy them. Many thought she was poor. Yet, she was a shrewd stock market investor, travelling all over North America by bus to attend stockholder meetings. At the time of her death, she left a half million dollars to be divided among her favorite charities.

“She lived in the same Smith Street apartment for 60 years. It was more an archival storeroom than apartment because it contained her books and historical papers she considered more valuable to her than the stock certificates she held in AT&T.” [3]

In 1969, Gibbons published a series of stories she had written about Louis Riel under the title My Love Affair with Louis Riel. A book called Stories Houses Tell followed three years later. Based on the columns she had begun in the Tribune in 1935, the book became a best-seller and copies can still be found in antiquarian bookstores. It told the stories of old houses around Winnipeg and the interesting people who once lived in them. She often visited the houses just before they were demolished and her accounts of over 300 houses and their families is an important part of our historic record. In 1970, she was awarded a Manitoba Centennial Medal by the Manitoba Historical Society. She was recognized by Heritage Winnipeg with a Distinguished Service Award.

Lillian Gibbons died on 13 February 1996 during a trip on the Amazon River near the Brazilian city of Manaus, in her 89th year. She had earlier remarked to fellow passengers, “If I die before we get to shore, just throw me overboard.” (They did not do it.) The minister at her memorial service later observed: “Lillian’s last words ... may seem crude to some but they spoke volumes. She put no value in material things. Unlike many, she did not live as one in captivity. And she knew that in spite of what people might think of her, she was a child of God. Loved. Forgiven. Empowered. Okay.”

Her articles for the Manitoba Historical Society:

Early Red River Homes
MHS Transactions, Series 3, 1945-46 Season

Early Houses in Winnipeg, part 1
Manitoba Pageant, January 1957

Early Houses in Winnipeg, part 2
Manitoba Pageant, Volume 3, Number 1, September 1957

The Grey Nun’s Home, St. Boniface
Manitoba Pageant, Volume 3, Number 3, April 1958

How Dr. Schultz Escaped from Jail
Manitoba Pageant, Volume 4, Number 2, January 1959

Sir John A. Macdonald’s Granddaughter
Manitoba Pageant, Volume 4, Number 2, January 1959

History Lives in Point Douglas Street Names
Manitoba Pageant, Volume 4, Number 3, April 1959

Poundmaker
Manitoba Pageant, Volume 6, Number 1, September 1960

The Criddle Family
Manitoba Pageant, Volume 6, Number 2, January 1961

Some Historic Chairs of Manitoba
Manitoba Pageant, Volume 7, Number 2, January 1962

In Memorium: Harriet Jane Barber Graham
Manitoba Pageant, Volume 7, Number 3, April 1962

A Sword from the Past
Manitoba Pageant, Volume 8, Number 2, January 1963

The Bishop’s Sister Lays the Corner Stone
Manitoba Pageant, Volume 9, Number 2, January 1964

Digging into the Exciting Past
Manitoba Pageant, Volume 11, Number 3, Spring 1966

The Smallpox Epidemic of 1876-77 in the Icelandic Settlements
Manitoba Pageant, Volume 19, Number 1, Autumn 1973

Winnipeg’s Oldest House
Manitoba Pageant, Volume 19, Number 3, Spring 1974

On With the Dance - Historic Balls in Manitoba
Manitoba Pageant, Volume 21, Number 4, Summer 1976

Bawlf House
Manitoba Pageant, Volume 23, Number 1, Autumn 1977

Architect Wheeler Lives
Manitoba Pageant, Volume 24, Number 1, Autumn 1978

Sources:

1. Obituary, Winnipeg Free Press by Christopher Dafoe, 17 February 1996.

2. Obituary, Globe & Mail by Lesley Hughes, 15 April 1996.

3. Obituary, Today’s Seniors by Barry Mullin, May 1996.

4. Birth registration, Manitoba Vital Statistics.

5. 1911 Canada census, Automated Genealogy.

This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.

Page revised: 30 May 2014

Memorable Manitobans

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