by Sam McBride

Perhaps the most memorable character from my boyhood in Nelson, British Columbia was my piano teacher, Marion Leitch McPhail.  She was a superb pianist and a good teacher, but was often in a bad mood in my encounters with her.

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Marion Leitch McPhail with daughter Sheilah, c. 1940. Courtesy Provincial Archives of Alberta PR2008.0058.12

I was warned by several people in my family to never ask her about the Frank Slide of 1903.   It was a subject that drove her to distraction — and with good reason: she was the baby who miraculously survived the slide, only to be the subject of myths, legends and jokes about it the rest of her life.   The tragic rockslide killed her parents and four brothers, but two older sisters survived as well as Marion.

My article about Marion as a survivor and piano teacher in Nelson was in the May 1, 2015 issue of the Nelson Star, viewable at  http://www.nelsonstar.com/news/302000401.html.  I have received great feedback from readers who saw the story in print or online, including several people who took piano lessons with Marion, between the 1940s and 1970s.  Students who reached the top levels of the Royal Conservatory of Music piano standards heaped praise on Marion, but others noted the lessons were not a positive experience for them.   One thing she did which would not be acceptable today was rap the knuckles of her students during the lesson.   I have heard from five ladies that this happened to them, but no men remember receiving the same punishment, which might indicate she was a bit harder on girls than boys.

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1955 issue of the Saturday Evening Post which had a feature story on the Frank Slide, including interview with Marion Leitch McPhail

In the 1930s Marion and her husband Larry were close neighbours of my grandmother Helen Peters Dewdney and her husband, my grandfather Ted Dewdney.  The McPhails resided at 808 Carbonate Street and the Dewdneys were about three houses away in the Hochelaga House for Bank of Montreal managers at the corner of Hendryx and Carbonate streets.   Helen had taken piano training at the Royal Conservatory of Music in London, England as a teen-ager in the early 1900s.  Marion, who was 13 years younger than Helen, took advanced piano training in Vancouver before settling in Nelson in the 1920s and supporting herself by giving piano lessons.  Larry and Ted knew each other well from the curling club, Nelson Little Theatre and other community organizations.  Both had prominent positions in the community — Larry as registrar of titles at the Land Registry Office and Ted as manager of the local branch of the Bank of Montreal.

 

Coincidentally, Larry was also a good friend of my paternal grandfather Roland Leigh McBride, who lived four blocks away on Hoover Street with wife Winnifred Foote and sons Leigh and Ken.   Like the McBrides, Larry McPhail was a keen golfer at the Nelson Golf and Country Club.

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Marion was a thoughtful friend. Here she sent back the 1952 Christmas card my mother had sent her several years later, thinking that Dee Dee may not have other copies of the card with a photo of her two boys Sam and Ken. She was right, as this is the only copy of the card in the family files. McBride Family collection.

My family files show that Larry and Marion attended the 25th wedding anniversary party of my Dewdney grandparents in 1937, and the 25th wedding anniversary party of my McBride grandparents in 1939.  They also attended the wedding and reception party of my parents Leigh and Dee Dee in 1948, and joined them in numerous social functions over the years.   Obituaries and funeral reports show that Larry was a pallbearer at the funeral of Ted Dewdney in 1952, and the funerals of other grandparents R.L. McBride in 1959 and Winnifred Foote McBride in 1960.  So there was a strong connection between my family and the McPhails, which was likely a factor in my parents choosing Marion to be piano teacher for my brother Ken, sister Eve and me in the late 1950s and into the 1960s.

Larry was a jovial fellow who often came home from work in the middle of my lesson with Marion.  The piano lessons occurred in the porch area of the house towards Carbonate Street, so he would have to come through the porch to enter the main part of the house, likely finding a spot free from the sound of the piano lessons.  I looked forward to Larry arriving because it was the only break I ever got in the 45-minute piano lesson, as Marion went to greet her husband and ask him how his day went.

Larry died from a heart attack in Nelson in 1965.  Marion retired from piano teaching after almost half a century of teaching in Nelson, and moved to Victoria, B.C. in 1971.  She died in Victoria in 1977 at age 76.

McPhail tombstone at Nelson Cemetery

tombstone in Nelson Cemetery for the McPhails. Notice the maiden name Leitch is included. Marion hated the Ballad of Frankie Slide that said the Frank baby never knew her name. Sam McBride Photo

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The Frank Slide in February 2011. Sam McBride photo.

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This Manitoba Morning Free Press news story from April 14, 1914 notes that Marion was maid of honour at the wedding of her sister Rosemary Louise Leitch, known in the family as May. Eldest sister Jessie was a bridesmaid. Newspapers.com

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Frank Slide today. Sam McBride photo.

 

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Photos of Sheilah McPhail are in the special 1956 high school grad publication commemorating the arrival of the new L.V. Rogers High School in Nelson. ABOVE, she is top right in the right-side group of photos. BELOW, Sheilah figure skating. In addition to being a champion skater, she was an accomplished singer and pianist.

 sheilah mcphail in 1956 yearbook skating 001

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