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HalifaxYesterday: Aileen Meagher, Canada’s Flying Schoolmarm (8 photos)

Aileen Meagher was an Olympic athlete, a school teacher, and an accomplished artist

Aileen Meagher, born in Edmonton, Alberta in 1910, was an Olympic athlete, a school teacher, and an accomplished artist. Meagher (pronounced: “Marr”) excelled at track and field and won medals at the British Empire Games in 1934 and 1938. Notably, she and her Canadian team members received bronze medals at the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics. She was also an avid world traveller. (see Image 1 above)

After leaving the Convent of the Sacred Heart in 1931, Aileen went to Dalhousie University with the intent of becoming a teacher. She also began to cultivate an irrepressible passion for running and joined the track team. She won every race at her first meet and soon held the record for the 100 and 200 yard events. Her coach encouraged her to try out for the upcoming Olympic trials. In 1932, Aileen became part of the Canadian team and travelled to the Los Angeles games. Unfortunately, she missed out on the competition due to a bad charley horse in her leg. Back in Halifax she was not deterred, and continued to train on the Dalhousie track. She graduated from Dal in 1933 and began her teaching career the following year at St. Patrick’s Boy’s School. (see Images 2 and 3 above)

The Amsterdam Summer Olympics in 1928 included the first women’s track and field events, during which the Canadian women’s team won gold for the 4x100 metre relay. Before then, it was uncommon - deemed in some circles as unacceptable - for women
to compete in public venues other than golf and tennis. While competing at the 1934 British Empire Games, Aileen won a gold medal in the 600 yard relay, and silver medals for the 440 yard relay and the 220 yard sprint. By then, sportswriters had nicknamed her “The Flying Schoolmarm.” She went on to be named Canadian Woman Athlete of the Year and in 1935, Canadian Athlete of the Year. (see Image 4 above)

Aileen next attended the controversial 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics. Chancellor Adolf Hitler used the games as a propaganda tool to put forth his doctrines of racial supremacy and anti-semitism. Despite the threat of boycott by several key countries, the movements were short-lived and the games went ahead. Talented Roma (Gypsy) athletes were still excluded from competition. Skilled fencer Helene Mayer, who had a Jewish father, was the only Jewish athlete allowed to compete on the German team.
Helene won a silver medal in her category and eight other Jewish athletes won medals. Eighteen African-Americans participated and won fourteen medals, including the great Jesse Owens, who came away from the games with four gold medals in the track and field events.*

The Canadian team performed well and won bronze medals in the 400 metre relay. In an article for the Christmas issue of The Bluenose magazine, Aileen described her experiences in fluid detail. She wrote that on 1 August, the opening day of the games, athletes from fifty-three nations had assembled together near the Stadium. After a signal, everyone lined up behind his or her own flag. Chancellor Hitler appeared and several trumpeters rang out a fanfare from towers high above in Marathon Gate.

“We hear a thunderous “Heil,” and then the gentle, almost sighing sound of Germany’s national anthem… The flags of all the nations are slowly raised and fly out far above the stadium. The huge Olympic bell rings out and, answering its call, the youth of the world, moving with beauty and strength, enter the stadium and stand in the field. Soon the green of the grass is hidden by the bright blazers and uniforms of the competitors.”

Baron de Courbertin, the first organizer of the modern Olympics, made a short statement after which the Chancellor declared the games open. Aileen’s article continued:

“The Olympic flag, five interlocking rings, representing the continents goes up. Salutes are fired, carrier pigeons wheel overhead, the great zeppelin, Hindenburg, cruises slowly by and the blare of the trumpets is almost unheard in the roar of a hundred thousand voices.”

After the Olympic hymn, a torch runner appeared. “He runs the length of the stadium and kindles the flaming torch that will flare against the skyline all during the games.” The day’s festivities closed with an announcement of the Olympic oath for all athletes and “with the glory of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” still ringing in their ears, the athletes parade out again.”

The games concluded on 16 August, and despite the international attention, Aileen described her return home as uneventful and without fanfare. She was welcomed at the train station by her friends and received a flower bouquet from one of the local newspapers. (see Images 5 and 6 above)

Aileen ended her running career in grand style at the British Empire Games at Sydney, Australia in 1938. She won silver in the 400 yard relay, and bronze in the 600 yard relay. For the next several months she used her winnings and savings to travel throughout Europe, South Asia and the Suez. Upon her return home, she resumed teaching. For a time, she proudly displayed her bronze medal on her desk to inspire her inquisitive students. During her 35 year teaching career, Aileen saved up so she could voyage to new destinations around the world every second summer. She kept a record of these journeys through a series of diaries and sketch books, which she later used as references for her artistic works.

Just before turning 40 in 1949, Aileen enrolled at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) to take an art class. Her natural talent and commitment yielded results in a very short time. Once her promising sketches and paintings became known through showings, she began to receive numerous accolades. The fledgling painter’s world had expanded to include producing vibrant artistic works and establishing new associations.

In December of 1950, just over a year after taking her first art class, Alex S. Mowat, President of the Nova Scotia Society of Artists informed Aileen that she had won first prize at an exhibition, “Painting in Nova Scotia,” for her watercolour entitled “Pattern.” A month later, the Society elected her as a member. During the 1950s, she attended the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts in New York City. She studied under Hofmann himself, taking courses in Provincetown, Massachusetts and continued with her artistic endeavours for the next three decades. (see Image 7 above)

Aileen received many sports honours throughout her life. She was a member of the Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame, the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame and the Amateur Athletic Union of Canada Hall of Fame (later, Athletics Canada).  For several years, the Aileen Meagher International Track Classic was hosted annually by Saint Mary’s University. The final meet was held in 2017.

Aileen Meagher died in 1987 at the age of 76. Her artwork is housed at the Dalhousie University Art Gallery and her diaries and sketch books can be found at the Sacred Heart School in Halifax. Aileen’s medals are housed at the Nova Scotia Sports Heritage Centre. The rest of her catalogue of papers, photographs and artwork are at the Nova Scotia Archives. (see Image 8 above)

Sources: Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women. The Nova Scotia Nine: Remarkable women, then and now (Portraits by Jo Napier; Stories by Joanne Wise), Halifax: Province of Nova Scotia, 2014:
https://women.novascotia.ca/sites/default/files/Publications/NovaScotiaNine_full_WEB.pdf

The Nova Scotia Archives online virtual exhibit on the life and accomplishments of Aileen Meagher:
https://archives.novascotia.ca/meagher/results/?Search=

*Jesse Owens received no acknowledgement whatsoever for his Olympic achievements by or from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, either during the games or after his return to the United States. Owens stated for the record: “Adolf Hitler did not snub me - it was our president who snubbed me. The president never even sent me a telegram.” Source: “Snub From Roosevelt,” St. Joseph’s News-Press, 16 October 1936, p. 30, col. 7:
https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=9kxhAAAAIBAJ&pg=6051,1761645&hl=en;

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