By Sam McBride
Receiving the Neville Shanks Memorial Award for best historical writing in the 2016 Ma Murray Awards last Saturday in Richmond, B.C. was a great honour. I was proud to receive the trophy at the awards dinner from Tim Shoults, 2015-16 president of the BCYCNA. http://www.nelsonstar.com/news/378660761.html
These are the annual awards of the B.C. and Yukon Community Newspaper Association (BCYCNA). Historical writing was one of 45 categories recognized in the awards program. For more than 90 years the BCYCNA has hosted the Ma Murray Awards (formerly called the Better Newspapers Competition), celebrating the achievements of member newspapers, including the Nelson Star. The awards cover all aspects of newspaper production, including publishing, reporting, editing, advertising, photography, community contribution and website design.
Margaret “Ma“ Murray (1888-1982) is remembered for her sharp tongue and fighting spirit as editor and publisher of the Bridgewater-Lillooet Times. Neville Shanks (1912-1977), founder and publisher of the North Island News, had a special interest in local history which led him to do numerous articles on local pioneers. The Neville Shanks Award is sponsored by Tinhorn Creek Vineyards.
Many thanks go to Nelson Star editor Greg Nesteroff, who submitted my story to the awards program and was thrilled when it was named a finalist, and then winner. Greg is renowned far and wide for his excellent reporting and devotion to local history. Without his inspiration and support, I could not have done the Marion McPhail story.
The judges` comments on my award-winning article were: “An excellent account of the Frank Slide and the baby girl who famously survived the disaster, but who later disliked her celebrity. Lots of solid research here and an engaging narrative“.
My entry, a feature article on my boyhood piano teacher Marion Leitch McPhail (1900-1977), was published in the May 1, 2015 Nelson Star. There was a special story associated with Marion, as she was the famous Frank Slide Baby. Over the years I often asked people why the story of Marion in her Nelson years had never been told, so I decided to do it myself, as I had clear personal memories of her and extensive experience as a researcher and writer.
In effect, Marion was twice a victim of the Frank Slide, one of the deadliest natural disasters in Canadian history. First, the collapse of Turtle Mountain in the small community of Frank in the Crowsnest Pass at 4 am on April 29, 1903 killed her parents Alexander and Rosemary Leitch and her four brothers. Then, for the rest of her life, Marion was plagued by myths about the slide that gave her the unwanted nickname of “Frankie Slide“.
A popular mountain ballad song “The Ballad of Frankie Slide“ and radio plays on the same subject reinforced the myth about Baby Marion being the only survivor of the Frank Slide. This was completely wrong, as most residents of the town of Frank survived the slide, including Marion`s older sisters Jesse and May. As Marion grew up in Cranbrook, B.C. she hated having to deal with the Frank Slide stories, particularly when people teased her by calling her Frankie Slide. The funeral for the six members of the Leitch family was held in Cranbrook four days after the slide. The local newspaper said it was the saddest event anyone could remember, and men who had not shed a tear in many years were openly crying. Marion was raised in the family of her uncle Archie Leitch, and her sisters were raised with other uncles in Manitoba.
As a teen-ager Marion moved to Vancouver, where she received advanced training in piano and music, and her connection to the Frankie Slide myth was less known. By age 24 she had settled in Nelson, B.C. as a music teacher. She was a good friend of my parents and both sets of grandparents in Nelson, and was my piano teacher in the early 1960s. I often thought she was in a bad mood during my lessons because of lingering anger about the Frank Slide myths.
The big event of the year for Marion and her fellow piano teachers was the Kootenay Music Festival, which alternated each year between the original Capitol Theatre in Nelson and the Junior High Auditorium in Trail. Students like me were under extra pressure to perform well in the music festivals because our success (or lack thereof) was a reflection on our piano teachers. It was very difficult for me, as a young boy with many other interests, to devote between one and two hours each day to piano practice, as ordered by Marion.
The full Marion Leitch McPhail in Nelson story in the Nelson Star is at http://www.nelsonstar.com/news/302000401.html