Ahead of Her Time

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Ashley Fayth’s talent was obvious at age 17

Soon after my previous blog about Ashley Fayth appeared, I received a message from Barbara Dean-Simmons, editor of The Clarenville Packet.

In that blog, Fayth was complimentary about the influence Dean-Simmons had on her career as a singer-songwriter. Dean-Simmons responded in the comments section, saying that she couldn’t take much credit for Fayth’s prodigious talent. 

I then received a direct message from Dean-Simmons, who, by way of demonstrating Fayth’s writing skills, attached one of her stories. That story is so good that I’m presenting it here. Fayth was just 17 when she wrote it.

“I think (this story) sums up why I will always say – unless someone equally fantastic comes along – Ashley was my favourite summer student,” Dean-Simmons wrote. “Her first summer here, she was just a 17-year-old out of high school. I offered her the job after attending the Random Island Academy awards night where she picked up an armload of awards for academics, including writing. My thought was at the very least I have a hard worker, and if she can write, even better.” 

However, Fayth exceeded Dean-Simmons expectations.

“Man could she write – with absolutely no j-school training, she proved herself to be head and shoulders above summer students I had hired who had training in journalism. She paid attention to my advice, soaked it all up and during the course of that summer, produced this story - still one of my favourite human interest features.”

Dean-Simmons is not exaggerating. This story is entertaining, informative and culturally important, in that it profiles a ground-breaking Newfoundland feminist. It’s long, but you will be rewarded by the quality of the storytelling and the power of Blackie Drover’s story. This will likely be the best piece of writing you read today. 

“I sent her to the interview with no more than the back story – Blackie Drover of Clarenville who gained notoriety in the '60s for being the first woman to be elected mayor in any town in the province, and then being promptly ousted from the position by political skulduggery initiated by the male contingent. Ashley went to the interview alone, and came back with this.”

 

Ahead of her time

Blackie Drover reflects on a life of many twists and turns

By Ashley Fayth Vardy

She was nicknamed Blackie for the color of her hair, shiny, sleek, and once dark as a raven's wing. She'll tell you as well, it defines her personality.

"Blackie is my name, and it's not just the color of my hair - it's the color of my soul!"

The Clarenville resident has always been a woman ahead of her time - innovative, independent and assertive - but in pre-confederate Newfoundland, there was no place for women like Dorothy "Blackie" Drover.

Born on Fogo Island in 1920, she spent eight years of her childhood there. She then moved to St. John's where she completed her schooling at Prince of Wales Collegiate. Her determination and drive were evident, even in these early years.

"All of the other girls took sewing, and cooking; things like that. I took the courses I knew would be useful to me. I took Latin, English, French, Chemistry, and Biology."

The courses would prove useful during her two-year pre-medicine program at Memorial University College.

"I would have been a doctor. I know I could have been a doctor. But things were different then." 

At a time when women rarely ever had the opportunity to get a post-secondary education, Blackie made a point to take in every course that was available to her. Unfortunately, Memorial only offered the prerequisite courses to medicine. In order to complete the degree, students were required to travel outside the province. 

When her mother fell ill during Blackie's final year of pre-med training, the young woman was forced to quit university in order to work.

"The family had to make enough money to have Mom sent to a hospital in Toronto. We were so happy that we could take care of her that I didn't have time to think about how upsetting it was, not to be able to go on with my training.

"I enjoyed Memorial, though. I can tell you one thing," she laughs, "I played some damn good sports!"

Without a doubt, Blackie was an excellent athlete. From field hockey to ice-hockey to track and field, she excelled in the area of athletics. She even went on to become a playing coach at the college.

Down to Business

Unfortunately, with the onset of her mother's illness, it was all left behind; university, sports and her dreams of being a doctor. Instead, she married, and at age 28 moved to Bonavista with her husband, Harry, to start a hotel business.

"I was always a breadwinner," notes Blackie. She would not allow herself to depend totally on her husband or anyone else. She believed in working for a living.

In 1952, Harry and Blackie moved to Clarenville where they bought and renovated the infamous Balmoral Lodge - at the time, the town's most modern hotel to date.

"We did everything," she recalls, "we made it the best. We had the things that no other hotel around here had - the dance hall, the liquor license - it was fantastic. Couldn't be beaten."

But, as fate would have it, five years from the grand opening of the reputable Balmoral came the expansion of chain hotels across Newfoundland and the subsequent closure of the Drovers' hotel.

Heading the polls

Blackie's aggressive and competitive nature had come in handy during her days of schooling, sports and business, but in 1957, with the collapse of the couple's investment it was time for her to enter a new arena - politics.

She is perhaps remembered best for her controversial involvement in the political arena, first as councilor, then as Clarenville's mayor. She was the first woman in Newfoundland to hold either of these positions. It was, of course, 1957, and running a municipality was a man's game - women in politics were unheard of. 

Campaign posters went up and the race was on. Blackie was the only female amongst 10 candidates nominated and she headed the polls in the November 12 election with 176 votes. Harry was also elected, making Clarenville Town Council the first in the province to have a husband and wife team.

Blackie realized that Clarenville had the potential to become a booming center and decided to do something about it. 

"I'd make one or two promises and I'd keep them. I always kept my promises," she says.

And Blackie did keep her promises. Unfortunately, some people found it difficult to accept a woman's success in politics. Corner Brook columnist Ed Finn Jr., author of "Minority Report," was one of those people. 

"Not being acquainted with the lady," he wrote at the time, "I can hold no personal opinion of her Mayoral aptitude, or lack of it. I can say that I don't think women in general make good mayors - or bosses of any kind, for that matter - since they are too emotional and unreasonable to exercise good authority wisely.

"Mrs. Drover may be one of her sex's rare exceptions... But even conceding Mrs. Drover the benefit of the doubt, I must admit that I shudder at the precedent she is setting. Newfoundland is one of the few corners of North America which is still free of feminist domination, and it grieves me to see even one community in the Island become a matriarchy."

At that time the local Government Act in Newfoundland stated that after a municipal election, a mayor and deputy mayor are appointed by councilors at a subsequent meeting. And it was customary to elect as mayor the person who heads the poll.

But on Nov. 22, 1957, that custom was broken when former mayor Boyce Smith, who received 144 votes (compared to Blackie's 176) was appointed Mayor of Clarenville.

Although Blackie was satisfied with this, the citizens who voted for her were not. A petition was organized to protest the non-election of Blackie Drover to the post of mayor. As a result of the controversy, Mr. Smith and five other councilors resigned. Deputy Mayor Harry Drover took over the three-member council and vacated his seat, appointing his wife mayor.

Woman of the Year

Shortly thereafter, Municipal Affairs Minister Beaton J. Abbot abolished the Clarenville town council that was elected on Nov, 12, declaring the election null and void. This was in accordance with regulations stating that five members were needed to comprise a working quorum. As well, the fact that the nomination day had been illegally deferred from Oct.16 to Oct. 26 made the election invalid (this occurred in several other towns, but was overlooked in all other regions).

Consequently, an appointed council consisting of most of the councilors who resigned on Nov. 26 was asked to serve until a general election. Blackie and Harry Drover were not appointed, and Blackie did not run in the next election.

"I could have carried on. Joey Smallwood asked me time and time again to join his ranks... I should have carried right on instead of being so utterly foolish! I could've bluffed my bloody way around anyone," recalls the 87 year-old. "So many of the men didn't understand how important it was to get to know people... important people."

Even though her involvement in politics was short-lived, her impact was felt across the country. Blackie made Canada aware that Clarenville existed. National press coverage was given to Mrs. Drover and the election fiasco, and she was even named Woman of the Year in 1958.

Blackie stepped out of the political ring in order to care for her husband, whose health had been declining for quite some time. Tragically, in January, 1962, Harry Drover suffered a fatal heart attack, leaving his middle-aged wife alone with three young children.

Blackie began to focus her efforts on the community once again, this time by forming Clarenville's first Home and School Association, and organizing fundraisers for Horwood High.

In 1965, she married Robert Barton, a British doctor, and the couple made their home in Clarenville.

A few years later in 1971, the family made the move to England. While Barton worked as a medical doctor, Blackie kept busy working as well.

"I worked in the hospital as an assistant. I worked a lot, in particular, with children with Down's Syndrome. It was a very good job," she smiles. "It always felt like you made a difference; and the children smiled so much!"

Setting sail  

The exciting news came in 1979. By now, the children were grown, and Blackie was ready for an adventure. Dr. Barton was offered a contract with the British Government to move to a small island in the South Atlantic.

Tristan da Cunha, with a population of less than 300, is the most remote colony in the world (according to the Guiness Book of World Records). In 1970, a volcano erupted on Tristan, and the entire island was evacuated to Britain. Despite the mixed ethnicity of the native people, it was a colony of Britain for centuries. 

Having been discovered by shipwrecked Portuguese, Italian, Scottish, French, English, and Scandinavian sailors in the early 1500s, the island remained a self-sufficient cultural treasure.

In the early 80s, British Crown Lands headed a project to rebuild Tristan da Cunha, in order to allow its displaced natives to return home.

"We were sent over - we flew from England to Capetown, South Africa, and then took a boat to Tristan. I'm surprised we made it alive!" laughs Blackie.

"Robert was the doctor in residence, so we stayed for two years - you're not allowed to stay longer. There are no visitors or tourists allowed there, and you're not permitted to live on Tristan if you're not a native - but Robert ran the hospital.

"There was school, a farm, a church, and a 9-hole golf course. Mail came by boat every three months. People usually left to go to university in England, but almost everyone came back. 

"Tristan was a beautiful place. I got to spend so much time with the children that lived on the island - and with only 300 people, birthdays were a big deal!" she chuckles. "I got to plan birthday parties for everyone! At least one a week."

"You see, I wasn't allowed to work as jobs were reserved for the native residents of Tristan. So it was different for me, since I had been working all my life. It was still very nice, though. I would certainly go back!

"Robert even made a very important medical discovery while we were there. Upon noticing a high incidence of asthma, he ran many tests to determine why this was a problem on Tristan. He ended up finding a problem with the water supply. So then we had to dig a new well. The asthma almost disappeared, then."

"We even had the opportunity to go see the nearby island of St. Helena, where Napolean had been exiled and imprisoned before his death. We saw his clothes and all of his things - it was just a fascinating experience!"

Life lessons

After two refreshing years on the island of Tristan da Cunha, the Barton's returned to England.

"We were looking into going to the former Zaire," recalls Blackie, "and we had almost taken the contract, right after the civil war had ended there. But Robert had been feeling ill, and doctors advised us not to go."

So, she and her husband followed the advice of other doctors who believed that Barton had been infected by some tropical disease while working on Tristan.

A short while later, doctors discovered he was suffering from polymyositis, a deadly disease resulting in the breakdown of the immune system, and the wasting of muscle tissue.

After struggling with the disease for nearly two decades, Robert passed away in 2004.

During her husband's final years, Blackie lived between England and Newfoundland, sharing her time between children.

Shortly before the death of her husband, she had suffered a stroke that caused her to lose her speech and control of many fine motor skills.

"One of my sons told me to practice talking, even if I was alone. I said, 'They'll think I'm crazy, talking to myself! I'll look like a damn fool'; but I listened to him. And I can speak again."

Blackie now lives with her daughter, Rusty, in Clarenville. She has many lessons to teach her two young grandsons, Luke and Harry, who listen attentively to their grandmother's stories.

The 87 year-old may have mellowed with the passing of time, but she still stands up for what she believes in.

"Go to school, and work hard for what you want," she says. "You can do anything you want to, if you work hard enough."

And even though the passing of time has turned her once-dark hair white, one can't help but notice as she runs her fingers through it, a single, defiant streak of raven black.

 

Postscript: Blackie Drover passed away on August 2, 2008, at the age of 89. There are portraits of all former Clarenville mayors on the walls of the town council chambers. However, Blackie Drover’s portrait is not there, apparently because she was never formally sworn in as mayor. Given the circumstances – including blatant sexism – that prevented that, perhaps it is time for the town to correct this injustice, and grant Blackie Drover the recognition she deserves.

 

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  • Ken O'Brien
    May 14, 2012 - 11:31

    Very interesting item about the late politician from Clarenville (and Fogo Island and St. John's). It's well written. As for the writer, Ashley Fayth, I look forward to hearing some of her music.

    • Brian Goff
      May 16, 2012 - 17:26

      That is an amazing piece of writing for someone so young with no formal training. Let me rephrase...it is an amazing piece of writing period! Music's gain is journalisms loss.