ELORA – Barbara 'Bonnie' Smiley will be remembered as someone who gave back to her beloved community.
Bonnie was an active volunteer with the Elora Singers and member of St. John’s Anglican Church with her husband John. Both were big supporters of the arts and their local volunteer efforts led to them winning the Florence Nightingale Community Service Award in 1997.
On Feb. 13, Bonnie passed away at the age of 96. Her daughters, Alison and Jayne Smiley, said their mother was a joyful woman who loved a good giggle, especially at The Three Stooges, and enjoyed a glass of champagne.
“(It was) very sad, she was a good friend to many people, there were lots of cards and phone calls,” said Alison, noting lots of people attended her funeral as well.
“She was a very joyous person, incredibly generous. In fact, the minister said of her in his eulogy that every time he was sitting with my mom, that she was serving him,” said Jayne. “A lot of people confided in her, she was that kind of person.”
Bonnie was born in 1925 and raised in the small village of Stanton-on-the-Wolds, Nottinghamshire, England. Growing up around mostly adults, Alison mentions Bonnie was close with her older brother, Peter, and her parents.
“She was in a family that knew how to have fun,” said Alison, mentioning they often rode horses.
Bonnie stopped attending school at the age of 16 and began to help her father at his accounting firm by doing audits.
“She ended up being an exceptional clerk,” said Alison. “A few people said she was the best clerk that he ever had.”
When the Second World War broke out, Bonnie used her accounting skills to help with code-breaking at the top-secret de-coding centre at Bletchley Park.
At 18, Bonnie was tasked with intercepting messages between ships, focusing on finding patterns in Japanese codes that were already broken. Doing this for three years during the war, Jayne said her mother called the task "grunt work."
After the war ended in 1946, Bonnie met her future husband, John, during V-Day.
“It was a dance… and my Dad was invited as a part of a group of men from the Canadian pilots that were stationed nearby, and she saw him come in the door and she said, ‘We looked at each other and we just knew,’” said Alison, adding she recalls her mother saying she called the station the next day to ask for John before he and other Canadian pilots were sent home.
“(She) said, ‘Is John Smiley there?’ and the guy who answered the phone just happened to be at the hall and he shouted out, ‘Is John Smiley here?’ and John happened to be walking by the phone at the time, and so she invited him home for the weekend and the rest is history,” said Alison. “They got engaged six weeks later.”
When John wasn’t able to find work as a pilot in England, the couple decided to move to Canada. John went first and then Bonnie came afterwards. The couple first landed in John’s hometown of Dryden, where a snowstorm was happening in the middle of June. They then moved to London.
In London, Jayne said their mother began working right away. She started working at the library at Western University and taking tickets at the community theatre. As part of the job requirement with the theatre, Bonnie had to wear ball gowns while taking tickets, and so she started sewing her own.
“Eventually, she became a very skilled seamstress. She made all of our clothes,” said Jayne. “She would make these gowns, and later on, I would play dress up with these discarded gowns.”
Moving to Toronto, Bonnie began volunteering with Girl Guides. Alison recalls her wearing a red Girl Guides uniform on special occasions.
Bonnie is described as a "true Brit" who was always homesick and returned to visit England many times. As a couple, Bonnie and John loved to travel, and visited countries like Mexico, Portugal, France, Belgium and the United States.
In 1958, Bonnie began to work with the Ontario Provincial Library Service, which required more travelling. As editor of the Review In publication, Bonnie visited various places across Canada to interview children’s book authors, where she would conduct some interviews in French.
“She loved working because it gave her the opportunity to be on her own and then the travelling she really loved,” said Jayne.
After both daughters left home, Bonnie and John decided to move to Wellington County and settled in Hillsburgh, joining St. John’s Anglican Church in Elora.
“They talked of it when I was around 13 or 14 about moving out there, and me changing high schools, but they decided not to,” said Jayne.
“They loved the countryside, they were big birders, they loved watching birds and animals, and they were kind of early environmentalists, they were always conscious about what they brought into the home, and they had two huge gardens.”
Through the past 40 years, the couple embarked on various passion projects, volunteered within the community, enjoyed the arts and hosted many parties, including an annual Christmas party.
In 2017, Bonnie moved into Heritage River Retirement Community. Even in her 90s, Bonnie continued to volunteer in Elora by helping children to read at a nearby elementary school, once a week. Both Jayne and Alison said everyone loved Bonnie and she had the ability to connect with people of all ages.