Now & Then: Gertrude Aelick Cooper

A family portrait.

Gertrude Aelick Cooper

This caring lady shares her kindness and her compassion to all who cross her path. Gert finds much strength in her faith and she strives to achieve higher levels with that aspiration. She has a strong family affiliation and spends much time discovering and sharing the Aelick and Cooper history. Another passion has been music. For over 30 years, she has lovingly played piano for the congregation of Grace Bible Church and residents of the Manor. After losing her husband of 46 years, Gert found a kindred soul in Don Cooper and now they share their stories and their lives.

Maternal roots go back to the mid-nineteenth century to Edward and Jonathan Bassingthwaite who hailed from Norfolk England. In the 1840s, great-great grandfather Edward later owned 200 acres in Greenbank, eastern Ontario and had five children. Great-grandfather Jonathan Bassingthwaite, born in 1823, came to Manitoulin to the Big Lake area. He died in 1885 after having married four times. 

William Stevens, Gert’s great-grandfather, married Caroline Brenchley. They moved to Manitoulin in 1895, 15 years after arriving in Canada. They sold their 400 acres in southern Ontario and spent all just to move to Manitoulin. English grandparents Bertha (Bassingthwaite) and William Stevens Jr. married in 1902 and had 12 children. Bertha and William were dedicated to the Methodist Church in Sheguiandah. She was a great housekeeper, gardener and cook while William especially loved gardening. 

“For a while, grandmother and mother were both having babies so some of my aunts and uncles were younger than my siblings. William Stevens Jr. was much loved for his easygoing ways. In his younger years, he was a commercial fisherman for John Hastie. Later he bought a farm in Sheguiandah. He soon became responsible to light and maintain the mariner lights on the community dock.” 

Paternal grandfather Thomas James Batman was born in Liverpool in 1851, arriving in Kilworth near London, Ontario with his parents eight years later. T.J. Batman later settled in Rockville, Manitoulin in 1877. He married Evangeline Agnew in 1882. His carpentry skills, augmented by his sawmill, were used to build houses and several sailboats which were launched on Lake Manitou and used to resettle new pioneers on the shores of the lake. The route most travelled ran from Van Zant’s Landing (near Manitowaning) to Bidwell Rd and Green Bay, where the family moved in 1884.

Gert with her siblings Eva and Ronnie and grandfather Tom Batman.

“Thomas was much involved in his Methodist Church, local politics and his community. He was reeve of Howland Township and helped negotiate bringing the railway to the Island. Grandfather died when I was four. Grandmother died in 1927 at 70, and her daughter Geraldine took on the maternal supportive role for us. She was called ‘Dean’ by all who loved her.”

Gertrude Jean Batman was born in the old Mindemoya Hospital on October 2, 1937 to Edna (Stevens) and Julian Batman. “I was the third child but the first to be born in a hospital.” She was named after two aunts, Gertrude and Jean. Gert had three siblings, Eva, Ron and Greg. Eva and Ron have passed away. Greg lives in Little Current.” 

“My earliest memory is sitting on dad’s knee at four while he told us stories of his teenage horsing around days, injecting a good dose of humour in the process. Fascination with a simple Christmas was the norm. Times were leaner in the war years. Mom made lovely decorations out of everyday items. Opening a coffee tin with a key yielded a perfect spiral, blue on the outside and silver on the inside. Whole walnuts produced two halves if carefully opened. These were glued with a string in the middle and then painted for the tree. A small doll was the center for the tree top angel, with some white sheeting for feathers and wings.” 

A young family of her own.

“Our first string of electric lights arrived when I was 10 in 1947. For celebrations, we gathered at dad’s parents, who had the largest home. The house had been built by grandfather using his lumbermill. A love for taxidermy resulted in a lot of stuffed heads in his house.”

“Mom Edna was the oldest in her family. She told us about the day she was babysitting her two younger brothers on a Sunday. Both parents were at church when brother overturned the coal lamp. Mom, still a child herself, quickly grabbed the flaming lamp and plunged it into the drinking water bucket. All turned out well, but mom forgot to tell her father about the state of the drinking water. She remembered her omission when he complained about the funny tasting water.”

“My first day of school, at six, was at Easter time so I could get used to school and officially start Grade 1 the following September. By then I was almost seven. A big highlight for us was the Christmas concert. At 10, I remember singing solo ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks at Night.’ Another year, I sang soprano beside my sister Eva, who sang alto for ‘Silent Night.’ We had decorated the school and made paper mâché costumes. It was a grand affair. For the last two years of elementary school we moved to the community hall to have more space for the audience and for the exciting dances afterwards.”

Gertie at home

“Eva and I also sang at weddings, funerals and on Sundays, for the United Church where Sunday School was taught by our school teacher. I was about 10 when I started to sing in the choir, and 12 when I started piano lessons at Aunt Geraldine’s home in Sheguiandah. The teacher Lois Noon paid my aunt to use her wonderful 1890 piano for lessons for several children. That is how I got my lessons for free. I remember the big house being very cold, so cold that the piano keys felt like ice cubes.” 

“For high school we were bused to Little Current. Favourite subjects were English literature and social studies. By Grade 10, Rodney Aelick and I were going steady and I had my first job. For two summers, I earned eight dollars a week as a cabin girl at White Haven Resort. For the rest of high school, I worked for my sister and brother-in-law who owned a grocery store in Sheguiandah.”

“In 1959 my mom died and I was heartbroken. I was with her when she died. She was in the rocking chair and she said she felt tired. I was ironing Rodney’s suit and I told her to put her head down for a while. She sat back and I didn’t realize that her heart was failing. I heard her final gasp of breath and I will always remember that sound. Suddenly, she was gone.” 

In September, Gert headed to North Bay to Teacher’s College. “I was away a whole year and I was homesick.” After graduation, Gert moved to Sudbury to teach at the Carl A. Nesbitt School. “Our principal was a very nice man, a wonderful fatherly figure. I boarded with a kind family of four and taught Grades 1 and 2 for two years.” 

“After the first year, Rodney and I married on August 21, 1959. After the wedding and honeymoon weekend, I had to return to Sudbury where I was living with three other women in an apartment.” Rodney stayed in Little Current and worked at the CPR coal dock. In his spare time, he began to build their own home on Manitowaning Rd and Draper St. “We were proud of this home and the next one, near Little Current. Both were built without a mortgage.” 

Gert at the back door with her doll and kitty.

In 1960 Gert applied to work at the public school in Little Current. “I got the job and we moved to our new home. I worked there for four years, teaching Grades 1 and 2 until our first son Steven was born in 1964. Darren was born 17 months later.”

In 1966 the coal docks closed because INCO was no longer using coal in the refining process. Rodney had spent years sitting in the hoist cage, running buckets of coal from the freighters into the waiting train or a nearby pile if the train was gone. For the next year or so, Rodney drove a truck for Manitoulin Transport before he and a couple of other men found two years of work in Temagami at the Sherman iron ore mine. 

“We rented our house to OPP Sergeant Wally Crow and his wife, bought a house trailer and moved to Temagami in 1967. In 1968 we moved to Hammer and set up in a nearby trailer park because Rodney was working in the mines for INCO. In 1969 we moved to Wahnipitae again to a trailer park.” Meanwhile Gert was busy with her young family and doing a bit of part-time work. She kept up with her music locally where she could. 

“In 1971 the tornado came through Sudbury. Men on the superstack survived despite the powerful movement of the stack. Rodney was in an open pit mine so he was fine, but worried about us. I was in the trailer park with the boys. I recall the strong winds, but we were not in the direct line of the tornado. Places like Lively and Markstay suffered more damage.”

“In June 1973 Rodney got work at the Willisville silica quarry for INCO. We moved the trailer back to the farm and Rodney was just 20 minutes from work. In 1975 Charlie Parkinson, father of Brad, helped Rodney build this house and we got out of our house trailer. By 1978 INCO made changes again. They stopped using silica for ore refining at Copper Cliff and the quarry was shut down. Rodney could still work underground in the Sudbury INCO mines. He carpooled with several other men until 1991 when he retired with good benefits from INCO.”

Don and Gert Cooper on their wedding day, April 14, 2012.

Gert taught vocal music to students and was a part of the Glee Club, begun in 1964 with Ruth Ashley. She had been teaching vocal music since they came back to the Island in 1973. By 1980, Gert had gone back to teaching full time. “We also had a cow-calf operation after we moved back to the farm. I didn’t do much of this work, but I helped in the barn a few times, especially when a cow had problems delivering a calf. One time the chain we had wrapped around the feet of the calf broke, and with the tension, snapped back and startled me but I wasn’t hurt. Sometimes there wasn’t time for the vet to come, nevertheless, quite a few calls went to Dr. Tipper in Mindemoya.”

“Across the street here we had a partial house with a tree growing in the middle. It was a popular place for local photographers. Rodney knocked down the front and back walls so the cattle would not get hurt if they bumped into them. We had a farm dog, Tip, a border collie who could round up the bull when Rodney gave the signal. Cats have always been my favourite. We had Daisy for 17 years and she loved me. She slept with our son and she would hum when you let her into the house.”

In 1991 Rodney had a serious heart attack. He was in the mow in the barn. He struggled down the ladder, collapsed, then slowly dragged himself to the door, unhooked it and crawled across the yard to the back door of the house. He banged on the door, alerting Gert. “Call the ambulance,” he gasped. Rodney had been a diabetic for just a few months. Soon he was off to Sudbury by helicopter for open heart surgery. He recovered and seven years later, in 1998, had a second heart attack and another ambulance ride to Sudbury for more open-heart surgery. Rodney lived for another eight years after his last heart attack. During this time, he went through radiation treatments for prostate cancer in 2005.

At his funeral in 2006, Darren recalled all the health issues that his dad had endured but still survived. “He had accidents as a youngster too. In 1945 he and several other children were playing with a young horse. One child got on the animal and Rodney hit the backside of the horse to get him moving. The horse kicked Rodney in the head and he was severely injured. He travelled by train to the Hospital for Sick Children with a nurse and endured three weeks of surgeries before he could come home. Another time Rodney fell between a team of horses and a dump rake after the horses were spooked by a loud noise. He was dragged across the field and badly bruised. In the underground INCO mine, he had also been trapped with bad air. He recovered slowly at the Espanola hospital. Now this strong man has come to the end of his life.”

The pretty teen all dressed up.

Gert continued with her devotion to the church, her music and her family. She kept on with the choir and her attendance at the Grace Bible Church and with the community. She did lots of volunteer work as a representative for Warm Hearts Palliative Care after six Saturdays of training while Rodney had still been alive. At the Manor, Gert played piano at birthday parties and gave devotional services for residents when requested. This included bible stories and songs. In time, she had to slow down with the visits, but she was aware that there were others who could share their time with the residents. “I miss seeing them.”

She had met Don and Karlene Cooper years earlier. “Karlene came from Little Current when I had first met her in Grade 9. I sang at their wedding in 1956.” Don lost his wife early in 2011. The Grace Bible Church was a common location for both Don and Gert. Don was on the board and Gert played the keyboard for Sunday Services. “Don is the kindest man you could come across. He is very personable, loving and so good to people. He was wonderful with his wife Karlene when her health was failing.”

Don and Gert began to date and on April 14, 2012, they were wed in their church. The reception was at the Sheguiandah Seniors’ Hall. The couple honeymooned in Sudbury for two nights, then headed for southern Ontario where Gert’s daughter-in-law was in a play. This was followed later by a month in Florida. 

“What would I do if I could go back in time? I would have taken more music lessons which stopped when our teacher left. I have a Grade 6 or 7 on piano and Grade 6 in voice. Also, I might have been less strict when teaching students or my own children. I love to play piano for friends and family.” 

“Favourite books? The ‘Forgotten Garden’ and the ‘Clock Maker’ by Kate Morton. Associations? The Genealogy Group and their book ‘Reflections.’ Also, the board of the Centennial Museum of Sheguiandah, which sits on property donated by two women, one of whom was Geraldine Batman. “There is a Lewis Room and a Batman Room. My cousin Tom Batman built the replica of Geraldine’s living room.”

“My strengths? I am told that I am a good hostess. I like to cook and bake. Our grandchildren love tea biscuits, chocolate cake, butter tarts and cookies. I love playing the piano and singing in the choir and for solos. Something I would still like to do? Grow personally in my faith and participate more in bible studies. Dr. Poenn has been a great teacher of bible studies. Lastly, I would like to write down my faith journey as well.” What am I afraid of? Afraid of a time when one of us will be alone again and needing a place to live that gives us more help. Will it be available? I hope we get some more assisted living facilities here. Don and I may not always be able to manage this house.” 

“Trips? Our trip to Israel about 18 months ago was powerful and meaningful. The story of Christ was all around us everywhere we looked, including the Wailing Wall, Bethlehem and Masada. Don also got to ride a camel and we floated in the Dead Sea. It was very special to really experience all these holy places. In Ontario, we have taken bus trips to the Blue Jays and the theatre in Toronto. We saw ‘Come from Away.’ It was heartwarming to see how the people of Gander helped these international visitors feel at home. We didn’t understand some of the East Coast dialect, but we had a wonderful time.” 

Gert (far left) in one of her choirs 1979

“Son Darren and his wife Lisa live in Lively. He was a computer tech in Sudbury at Digital. Now he is working with a small construction company with his son. They build docks and do reconstructions. He and his wife may move to this farm when we can move to an apartment in Little Current. Son Steven and wife Julie are in Alliston where Steven has been a financial consultant for the last 20 years. They recently bought a family farm on Hwy 6 at Sheguiandah. We also see a lot of Don’s family. I appreciate feeling close to them.”

The couple continues to spend time at the church, for devotions and concerts at Easter and Christmas. Gert had directed the choir in the past. “We see the family often. Don and I both love the ambience and the culture and have spent most of our lives here. Even when our family was not living on the Island, we always came back to Manitoulin for a visit. We still go to the city to shop but we enjoy coming home even more. I am not a big city person, and I am happy here surrounded by our friends and family.”

The whole family at home