Georgie Margaret Irvine
August 22, 1926 - September 17, 1997
My Auntie Georgie was a ballsy banker with soul. How many of those can there be? She managed the Credit Union in Vernon BC, Canada, from the late 50's until 1974, when it was unheard of for a woman to manage any type of bank whatsoever. And she did it like a human being, not like a capitalist stooge. She wasn't university educated, but she was bright and she knew that the main thing about business is trust, and trust is all about how you treat people. She took care of the people who worked for her and they helped her take good care of the Credit Union and the members of the Credit Union. Georgie's staff was entirely female. One of those on staff was my mom, Evelyn Andrews, Georgie's younger sister. Mom worked for Georgie throughout the 60's until we moved to Victoria in 1970.
Georgie grew the Credit Union from a small membership and assets of about $14,000 to a membership of over 15,000 and millions of dollars in assets. An article from 2004 in the Vernon newspaper puts it in context:
The heyday [of the Vernon Credit Union] is considered to be the late 1950's when Georgie Blakely was the manager and the Credit Union had a membership of 15,000—an impressive number when the population of the North Okanagan wasn't much more than that (24,000).
Blakely started as a secretary and worked her way up to manager.
I don't recall Georgie being doctrinaire concerning feminism or political ideology—or even talking about them, for that matter—but she was admired as a person and a woman who created the best bank in town, and it was run by women. She was widely admired and respected. She wasn't doctrinaire about anything, really. She'd rather talk about relationships or business—about your hopes and dreams, really, than about abstractions. Or swap jokes. Or talk about baseball or opera.
She had a gruff exterior, as noted in another article. She was from the John Wayne generation. She was more like John Wayne than John Wayne's women in her gruff candor, strength, humour, and leadership. She once told me that if I was looking for sympathy, I could find it in the dictionary between shit and syphilis. If I recall correctly, I wasn't actually looking for sympathy, at the time. She wouldn't say that sort of thing if I really had needed sympathy. It was just a good line at the time, good for a laugh. She paid my way through several years of university. That's pretty serious sympathy, it seems to me. And I wasn't the only one she helped. She donated regularly to various charities such as World Vision and helped friends and family with loans and outright gifts. And she wasn't extravagant in her own spending. She wore sweatshirts and slacks; someone once mistook her for the janitor in the Credit Union. She was an active supporter of the Anglican Church, the Vernon hospital, and various other organizations.
But, yes, she could be gruff. I remember one time when I was a kid and at the Credit Union. Some guy was giving a female teller a bad time about something. Georgie was within ear shot. She walked up beside the teller and spoke to the man on the other side of the counter. "I'm going to count to ten. And when I get to ten I'm going to be on the other side of this counter, and you'd best be gone." She started counting and walking. And he was gone prettty quickly. You just really wouldn't want to mess with that woman. What was she going to do at ten if he was still there? I have no idea. Neither did he. Maybe she didn't either. But he didn't want to find out. Perhaps they'd encountered one another before. It seems that way. Georgie wouldn't do that with a stranger, I wouldn't think, or with someone who might have a real beef.
She had a big heart and she was humble about her position in Vernon and helped out where she could while also being nobody's fool as a business woman. She took her responsibilities seriously and attended to them vigorously and with some pleasure. That's how she was in her private dealings and in person. And she was very much a what-you-see-is-what-you-get type of person, so I imagine that's what she was like as the manager of the Credit Union, also. Which, no doubt, has a lot to do with how she grew it from something very small to the biggest bank in town. People trusted Georgie and she didn't let them down. I think she was more or less the model of what a banker should be—if there should be any at all. We were all proud of her in the family, proud that she was such a leader and benefactor to so many. She was a 'do-gooder' without making a big deal about it. In fact, I think she felt it wise not to wear the heart on the sleeve or be perceived as an easy mark. I would think that wouldn't help a banker or the bank. That was part of the gruff exterior. She was a business woman, not a charity organization. She liked to say she wasn't in the business of losing money. But she liked to help people, too, and did so regularly.
You get a sense of Georgie's managerial style from a 2004 article from the Vernon newspaper about the Credit Union:
"Georgie treated us all like her own family," recalls Millie Barker, a former employee who retired last fall after 31.5 years of service. "She'd start work at 5 in the morning and she'd get busy in the staff kitchen downstairs—I remember many full turkey dinners ready for us at lunch. She was quite the lady."
In another article, the writer quotes Georgie's policy on how to treat her staff. I heard Georgie say this a few times myself. She said "Work them hard. Spoil them rotten. And pay them well." Mom didn't get rich working for Georgie, but she enjoyed her job and was probably better paid than she'd get elsewhere in Vernon banks.
Part of the "Spoil them rotten" part, I expect, had to do not only with the turkey dinners (and that sort of thing) she cooked downstairs but all the parties she threw downstairs. I was a little kid at the time, but I remember going to a couple of these parties and I remember mom and dad going out for the evening to many more than the couple I was allowed to attend until it was a little past my bed time.
There probably weren't any interesting night clubs or night spots for the young adults of Vernon in the fifties and sixties. The Credit Union basement, it seems, addressed that problem, somewhat, occasionally.
Georgie knew how to enjoy herself. She enjoyed the company of her friends, of which she had many, and she was a gregarious, generous-spirited host. I think people enjoyed those parties immensely. I can hear her laugh just thinking about her. It conveyed a fullness of enjoyment. Like the laugh of a lion. Triumphant. Well pleased. Confident. Rye and cigarettes never far away. I don't know why she didn't smoke cigars. It wouldn't have surprised anyone. A deepish, husky voice. But that makes her sound butch. Well, sort of. But she was also, as Millie Barker noted, "quite the lady".
Georgie married, for the first time, when she was 19 and divorced Walter Graham at 26, in 1952, seven years before I was born. She was single until she was 38. If she became manager of the Credit Union in the late fifties, that would have been when she was about 30. During that long period of being single. In her very prime. What a formidable person she must have been, at that point. All her life, she was charismatic in that John Wayne way of hers. But, looking at the pictures of Georgie in her youth, she was also drop-dead gorgeous. Charismatic, hard-working, forthright, a leader, a woman, and drop-dead gorgeous. No wonder the Credit Union had 15,000 members out of a population of about 24,000. How many of those were men trying to impress Georgie? Probably a few.
She married Bernie Blakely in 1964 when she was 38 and he was 63. They were together until Bernie passed away in 1977. I was fond of uncle Bernie, as were his other nieces and nephews. I was five when they married and 18 when he passed away. So my impressions of him are from my early time. But, even then, you could see that Bernie and Georgie were right for one another. Bernie was calm, cool, collected, dapper, deep, funny and reassuring. Generous of spirit. Particularly when she got drinking, Georgie could be 'one bear cat' as mom used to say. Bernie smoothed her out. He understood her, appreciated her. And she appreciated that. They brought out the best in each other.
They never had any kids. And Georgie never had any kids from her earlier marriage. She liked kids, however. They'd better behave themselves, though. You wouldn't want Georgie dressing you down. No way. We kids were always on our best behavior when Georgie was around. Don't mess with the boss. She could carve you up with a few choice, accurate words before you knew what hit you.
We lived just a couple of blocks from Georgie and Bernie in Vernon. They had a nice older house with way more bedrooms than they needed. And lots of lawn. And lots of garden for them both. They both enjoyed gardening. And a view. Their house was fun for kids. You could explore it for a long time, it was so big. And they had three cats. Teddy, Murphy, and Princess. Teddy nailed me on the nose once when I got too forward with him. I howled. But Georgie said "Serves you right. He's a nice cat. You just have to behave around him. And don't stick your nose too close to his." I remember being a little surprised that Georgie would side with a cat over me. But she was right. Teddy didn't hurt me bad. Just a swat on the nose to teach me to keep my distance. And a couple of drops of blood.
As you can see in the pictures, Georgie had cats all her life. The first pictures I have of Georgie show her happy in the company of a cat. The cats of hers I knew, much later on, Teddy, Murphy, and Princess, were friendly kitties. Teddy was old enough that he was boss cat and didn't put up with any nonsense from kids. And, toward the end of her life, Georgie had many many cats. After she passed away, her favorite cat, Pepi, came to Victoria with us. And Pepi was my dad's cat, then. And when dad passed away, I got Pepi. Pepi lived till 20. Putting her down was like putting a sister down.
After Georgie's last husband, Henry Irvine, passed away, she acquired far more cats than she'd ever had before. She had over a half dozen indoor cats and had at least as many outdoor ones. But, when I was a kid, she just had Teddy, Murphy, and Princess. Dignified and friendly cats, excepting Teddy. Teddy was grey like uncle Bernie—the exact same shade of grey—but not as nice.
I remember sleeping over at Georgie's place one Easter when I was about seven. I wondered if the Easter Bunny would visit in the morning, whether he would know that I was staying at Georgie's. But, at that age, I also wondered if this Bunny existed at all.
In the morning, I woke to the sound of a loud bump. I looked in the direction of the sound and saw Georgie, at the other side of the fairly large room, hopping out the doorway, foot in hand, cursing ever so slightly as she went. She'd stubbed her toe while in the room and was attempting a quick exit without being seen.
Even a seven-year-old can find that funny. I chuckled, but not loud enough to be heard, and got up to check out that part of the room. Sure enough. There was an Easter basket with some candy and a baseball glove in it. She was secretly the Easter Bunny! No, I wasn't quite that dumb. I grew more fond of Georgie from that little incident. I didn't tell her I'd seen her. It was clear, from what I'd seen, that there was no Easter Bunny. But it was endearing and funny that she hopped out the room a bit like one. The Easter Bunny disappeared into a muffledly cursing Georgie hopping out stage right. I grew up a little there, with Georgie's unwitting assistance.
I had a birthday party at Georgie's house when I was seven or eight. It was a great party for me and my friends. Lots of room to play. The hide and seek game was fabulous, in that huge house. Georgie wasn't there, though. Neither was Bernie. But it was nice of them to let the party happen there.
I would visit Georgie Saturday and/or Sunday mornings. She would feed me some fabulous pound cake. And Bernie taught me how to swing a golf club and play chess. Those were memorable visits, to me, and I felt close to Georgie and Bernie.
But it wasn't too long after that when my relationship with Georgie changed. Sometimes, when dad was traveling, Georgie would come over to our house in the evening and drink with mom. Both of them were developing drinking problems. All five of the siblings had drinking problems. Mind you, alcohol and cigarettes were like meat and potatoes in Vernon in the fifties and sixties. There wasn't a lot to do. And alcohol and cigarettes were just way more popular in North American culture, at that time, than they are now.
Georgie would come over and drink with mom late enough that I was in bed. Sometimes these sessions would get quite nasty, with Georgie dressing mom down and mom crying and Georgie eventually stomping off home. It was all loud and scary enough that I didn't sleep while it happened. I don't know what the particular subject of these emotional assaults on mom was. Whether it was Credit Union related or just a stage of alcoholism. But it was very disturbing to me to have mom verbally attacked by Georgie. I was only nine or ten. I didn't have much of a clue what was going on. And mom forbade me from saying anything to Georgie about it.
But, from then on, I was very wary of Georgie. The trust dried up. Both Georgie and mom, when drinking, could get mean. A Jekyll and Hyde thing. When they were drunk and flashed a certain cruel smile, you knew you were in for some verbal trouble. And, often, they would forget it all the next day.
But both of them lived lives that, with these sorts of odd and occasional exceptions, were lives of kindness, generosity, service, and humility. Alcohol would temporarily turn them into people that they weren't, otherwise. I myself have said hurtful things while drunk that I wish I could take back but can't. Alcohol only profits those who make it and sell it.
In 1970 we moved from Vernon to Victoria. My father's job with the federal forestry had moved to Victoria. He didn't want to move and, for a year, tried to find another job. But he couldn't find anything as good. So we moved. That move was the cause of the worst fights my parents ever had. Mom's whole family was in Vernon and Armstrong. She was devoted to her family. But she gave in, eventually. Dad hoped it would help her quit drinking. It didn't.
Nor did it help Georgie's problem with alcohol, apparently. She was ousted from the Credit Union in 1974. As I understand it, there were two main causes. One of them was alcohol.
But the second was the beginning of the computer revolution in business. The Credit Unions in the province were beginning to be computerized. But that was just so not Georgie's style. She wasn't running any sort of impersonal system. Her whole approach was personal and familial. You get that impression from one of the articles on her:
The writer is saying that despite her achievement of raising the bank to a success it hasn't enjoyed since, she'll be remembered for the character she was—because she was so exceptional as a person. She was a non-conformist and an extraordinarily strong individual.
The transition to a computerized banking system was just not one that Georgie would appreciate, understand, or have great motivation to execute. Surely she must have wondered why they wanted to fix something that so patently was not broken–or broke. Her Credit Union was a triumph of the personal, of the feminine, of real community involvement, of the familial, of trust. And of fun. Of everything that she stood for and loved. It must have been terribly painful for her to have it fall away or apart in the face of the machinations of history, of "progress".
Business, like everything else, was a personal affair, for her, so the sorts of systems of computing, at that stage, would not have made much sense to her. But, also, I remember her snapping at me a couple of times, saying "Don't try to educate me, Jimmy." And I remember that I hadn't actually been trying to educate her, but just commenting on how I saw something. I guess whatever I'd been saying just rubbed her the wrong way, didn't make sense to her, or struck her as intellectual but uninformed by experience. In any case, she did have a certain resistance to 'being educated', which is somewhat odd in someone so intelligent and someone who obviously had to learn a great deal to manage the Credit Union so successfully for so long. One would think she had to have approached that very sensitively as a continual learning experience.
It's too bad the Systems Analysts couldn't learn from her nor she from them. Clearly the Credit Union suffered, as did Georgie.
At the same time that was going on in Vernon, my mom was in Victoria working at a Credit Union there, after our move from Vernon. And what was she doing? The Victoria Credit Union was in the midst of a move to the use of computers. Mom was a Teller by day, and at night, she'd pour over computer printouts looking for errors. And she'd find them, too. And try to figure out the logic. And communicate her findings to someone in the system and hope it got fixed. She loved doing that sort of stuff. It put her considerable mental powers to work solving riddles. I wonder if Georgie could have made the transition to computing if mom had been there, in Vernon, during that time? I guess we'll never know. In any case, they were a significant duo working together at the Credit Union in Vernon, I expect.
But getting ousted at the Credit Union wasn't the end of Georgie's life. Not by a long stretch. After her life at the Credit Union was over in 1974, she bought a corner store and ran that very well, very ship-shape. Members of the family worked there. John and Joe Henderson, Elinor's kids (Elinor was mom's twin), worked there.
Bernie, her husband, died in 1977 at the age of 75. He is still missed by those who knew him. He was a gem of a man. Georgie was 51 at the time. She was single for another long stretch, until 1990, when she married her third husband, Henry Irvine.
Actually, Georgie and Henry were together for several years prior to their marriage. They finally ran off to Las Vegas, when Georgie was 64, and tied the knot. Georgie told me that Henry "was the love of my life." I was surprised. I'd thought Bernie had been. But Bernie was 25 years older than Georgie. Perhaps he was more of a mentor to her. Whereas Henry was more or less her own age. If Henry was the love of her life, what was Bernie to her? Bernie was her teacher and lover and calming, comforting assuror in times of difficult decisions. He was with her in her busy days of running the Credit Union. Whereas Henry was with her when they both could just spend their days with one another. I think she loved Bernie too, and that he loved her. But her focus, at that point in her life, was on her life at work. It had to be. It couldn't have been so easy to do what she did.
It was during the time that Georgie and Henry were running the corner store—simply called Georgie's Market—that I decided I wanted to be a writer. I remember telling Georgie this when I was about 21 or so. She said to me "Well, then, you'd better go where the bears are."
I knew what she meant by this. That I'd better go where the real writers, the serious writers, were. But it also made me think of some pictures of Georgie feeding the bears in Yellowstone Park in 1957. She and my mom, Bob and Anna Cail fed the bears. There are pictures of the whole fool lot of them feeding momma bear and the cubs. And of momma bear with her paws on the fully open window on the driver's side, head in the car. And Bob in the driver's seat. Not something that would happen today, I expect. But it's appropriate to have some pictures of wild beasts eating meekly from Georgie's hands.
In any case, years after Georgie told me I'd better go where the bears are, after having become a writer, I told her I'd figured out where the real bears are. "Where's that?" she asked. "They're way out there in their wilderness," I said. She took a sip of her drink, a drag on her cigarette, and said "I expect you're right." Georgie knew where the real bears were. She was one herself.
Even though I was wary of Georgie, I always admired her. She was bold, confident, courageous, accomplished, a leader, tough, intelligent, and honest. I loved her as an aunt, as family, but also because she was so many of the things I hoped I would someday be. She didn't have any kids, but I think lots of her nieces and nephews looked up to her in ways that she might not have realized.
When she became terminally ill with cancer, my mom and dad went to Vernon to care for her at the end. I think that was for a couple of months. Just as mom did that for Elinor, mom's twin. And Margaret and Emerson, my grandma and grandpa. Georgie, of course, didn't go without a fight. There was at least one occasion when mom and/or dad got the drug dosage wrong of morphine. And Georgie, overdosing, hit dad over the head with a metal frying pan and accused them of trying to kill her. And I'm sure it was a trial for Georgie and mom and dad alike. But mom wanted to be there for her sister. And was. Those three sisters were so close. That whole Cail family was close. Grandma and Grandpa and their five kids: Bob, John, Georgie, Evelyn and Elinor.
I understand now that Georgie stood for the same things my mom and Elinor did, though Georgie had a more prominent position in society, while she was managing the Credit Union. They all stood for love, understanding, meaningful service to others, and fairness and equality between people in society. Basically, they stood for each other. They stood for their friends and family and for their community. And, of course, a stiff drink, a smoke, and good times with friends and family.
And this is a typical kind of Canadian ethos. There's nothing nationalistic about it at all. There's nothing doctrinaire or overtly ideological about it, apart from its unvarnished capitalism. It's an ethos of personal relationships. It's not overtly religious, either. It's about loyalty to friends and family and community. It's about treating people right. Georgie's managerial style, which was so personal, was her embodiment of that ethos. The Credit Union Georgie and mom and many others built together was not, you know, from corporate headquarters in Toronto. It was right from the heart of the community. It was a union of community. Georgie understood that. She saw the beauty in it. And so others could also see it.
Probably the above note from Georgie was mainly for mom, Georgie's sister. Mom was the one Georgie named to be the executor of her will, and mom and dad and Elinor were the main care-givers toward the end; Georgie passed away at home.
But it could as well be addressed to you or me. This is the last writing I have from Georgie. It's beautiful. She was ready. She was one courageous old lion of a woman, and she was not afraid of death. She was curious already about the next stage. And it wasn't so much a farewell note as 'we will meet again, don't worry about me.' There was a woman who followed her own path. Yet she was also so close with her family and friends.
And she was also a woman of faith. Again, not a particularly doctrinaire faith, it seems to me. But a trust that they would indeed meet again on "the other side of the curtain". A faith that there was more to the story. Or that, in any conceivably appealing notion of one's state after death, the connections with family and friends, being beautiful and true and deepest of life, would not be lost, being so central to the meaning of life.
So that, even if we don't meet on "the other side of the curtain" and after we die, that's it, end of story for us—Georgie's note is at least a poetic expression to her sister Evelyn of how important Evelyn and her other friends and family have been to Georgie. It's a statement about what is really of value in this life, regardless of whether we meet up in any next life. And it's a statement to her sister of her love for her.
That's Georgie's sort of poetry. Spoken or written in full involvement in life at the moment. That's part of what made her such a charismatic inspiration. Her full involvement in the present.