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Tuesday August 31, 2010

Natural-born leader witnessed history with keen social conscience

After years full of adventure, Willa Walker settled in a quiet N.B. town, but remained engaged in her community

Special to The Globe and Mail

Willa Walker was only 20 years old in 1933 when she worked her way around the world as a postmistress on an ocean liner.

It was the sort of intrepid spirit that came naturally to her generation, but her life was also an amazing combination of serendipity and ability. When she joined the armed forces in the Second World War, she had no idea she would become the commanding officer of the Women's Division of the Royal Canadian Air Force, nor did she know when she married Captain David H. Walker that they would be separated for five years while he was interned in a German prisoner-of-war camp. And she could never imagine she would witness one of the most important events in the world, the end of British rule in India. It was no wonder then that after all that adventure, she settled in Saint Andrews, N.B., with the intention of thereafter living a quiet life. But by the time Willa Walker died of natural causes on July 4, at the age of 97, she was just as well known for her achievements in Saint Andrews.

Wilhelmina Magee was one of four children born in Montreal to Allan A. Magee and the former Madeline Smith of Saint John. Allan was a successful lawyer and businessman, and while the family lived in Montreal, the children enjoyed summers at the Smith cottage in Saint Andrews. Willa (she shortened her name for simplicity's sake) had an unconventional education as she attended a private school for girls in Montreal called The Study. The curriculum at the school was described as "extremely fluid, and an emphasis was placed on spontaneity and stimulus." It was a curriculum that suited Willa just fine. In her teens, she developed a keen social conscience and a lifelong interest in other people's welfare. She wanted to see more of the world, and was particularly impressed by anti-fascist lectures given by Dr. Norman Bethune. On one of her stops during her time aboard the ocean liner, she visited China - a fascinating country she would not visit again until well into her 70s.

In her 20s, Willa studied for a time in Paris and then took a job as private secretary to Lady Beatrice Marler, the wife of Sir Herbert Marler, then envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary of Canada to the United States. The Marlers were in Washington until 1939, when they returned to Montreal. The timing was auspicious because Willa happened to be invited to a party at Rideau Hall and met a young captain in the Black Watch named David Walker. He was serving as aide-de-camp to Canada's governor-general, Lord Tweedsmuir, the novelist John Buchan. The couple's first meeting was far from promising; Willa asked David for a sherry and he brought her a stiff Scotch. However, soon sparks flew, and after a whirlwind courtship, they married on July 27, 1939, with a quick honeymoon in his native Scotland.

With the imminent threat of war on the horizon, David Walker rejoined his division in England, and in 1940 he was posted to France. He was captured by the Germans at Saint-Valery in June, 1940, and spent the next five years in PoW camps. He managed to escape three times but was recaptured each time. Eventually, he was sent to the infamous Colditz Castle. At the time he was captured, Willa could not know she would not see him for five years. She discovered she was pregnant and, in due course, a baby boy named Patrick was born. Tragically, he died of crib death at only three months old. It was a loss that Willa never quite got over.

During the years David was incarcerated, Willa never gave up hope that her husband would escape and return home. She developed a code for communicating important news in seemingly bland letters to her husband, which passed both Canadian and German censors. She also managed to smuggle escape maps to him in the soles of a pair of shoes contained in a Red Cross package. Canadian military officers intercepted the package and found the maps. At first, they admonished her for her foolhardiness, but then the ingeniousness of the scheme appealed to them, so they repacked the shoes and sent off the package.

Willa decided she wanted to make more of a contribution to the war effort and returned to Canada in 1941 to join the legions of women who signed up for the armed forces. She finished first in her class in officer training and within six weeks became the commanding officer of the 17,000-member Women's Division of the RCAF. Willa discovered she was a natural-born leader. As section officer, she was responsible for setting up training depots all over Canada, but it was still very much a man's world. At each of the training depots, the officers' mess was for men only. Exasperated by this state of affairs, Willa told her driver to park her car in front of one of the officers' messes. In subzero temperatures, she sat in the car and ate her sandwich. The officers were shamed into inviting her inside. Thereafter she never had problems finding a table in any of the messes.

Willa left the RCAF in 1944 and returned to England to reunite with David. The couple settled briefly in Scotland, where their son Giles was born. The young family then travelled to India when David was reassigned to serve as chief of staff to Lord Archibald Wavell and, subsequently, to Lord Louis Mountbatten. The final years of British rule in India were marked by tremendous bloodshed and turmoil. After Willa witnessed street demonstrations in support of Mahatma Gandhi, she became a great believer in his non-violent campaign for Indian self-rule. In 1947, the Walkers returned to Scotland, where David retired with the rank of major and their son Barclay was born. The Walkers made the decision to return to Canada while David Walker pursued his dream of becoming a writer. He succeeded in establishing himself as a novelist, writing 21 books, and was twice awarded the Governor-General's prize for literature, in 1952 and 1953.

Willa had managed to persuade her husband to settle in Saint Andrews, N.B. Later, two more sons, David and Julian, were born. Julian recalls that his mother was the social one in the family, and loved occasions when she could meet new people and make lifelong friends. She was also dedicated to serving the community, joining several local committees and organizations, and writing a popular book about Saint Andrews, No Hay Fever and a Railway. David Walker was a keen conservationist and sat on the Roosevelt Campobello International Park Commission until a year before his death. A lifelong smoker, he died of congestive heart failure in 1992. Willa later established the David H. Walker Prize in Creative Writing at the University of New Brunswick in his memory.

While he was in Colditz Castle, David wrote extensively and managed to send some of his poetry to Willa. Her favourite poem was simply titled To Willa. It is a stark yet tender testament to the bond between them, which endured even after five years of separation:

Here in the dawdling night

In the dim-lit murmuring room

The ceiling is touched with floodlight

And memories loom.

And the west wind below the castle wall

Sweeps in the trees and the owls call.

Ah, My Love, let us fly together

Through the night

Through the cold

Through the winter weather

Willa Magee Walker was predeceased by her husband, David; two brothers, Jim and Allan; her sister, Nora; and her first son, Patrick. She leaves her sons Giles, Barclay, David and Julian, numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and her extended family.

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