Now & Then: Ruth and Craig Pettis

Craig and Ruth on their Wedding Day, 1973.

Ruth and Craig Pettis

Ruth and Craig have been medical practitioners in Kingston much of their lives, Craig as a family doctor and Ruth teaching at Queen’s University School of Nursing. The couple met on Manitoulin when Dr. Pettis attended an official posting as a medical student. He worked with Dr. McQuay in the summer of 1972, was captivated by Ruth, and the rest is history. The church has always been a salient part of Ruth’s life, as is being part of the Wagg family and playing the piano. Volunteering for many associations and coming home to Manitoulin are now ‘anchors’ in both Craig’s and Ruth’s lives.

Ruth’s great-great grandfather, Tom Wagg, and his family came to southern Ontario from England in the 1840s. In 1877, their son, great-grandfather Frank Wagg, a stone mason and general merchant, arrived with his wife Elizabeth to Manitoulin Island to homestead on what is now the Nelder Farm in Carnarvon Township. Frank became the first reeve of Carnarvon Township in 1879 and the first postmaster in 1880. In 1879 he donated a half acre of his farm for the Mindemoya Cemetery. They sold the farm in 1900, built the first ‘town’ house in Mindemoya and bought the McKenzie General store where Jake’s is now. “Frank Wagg outlived three wives. Sarah Vincer Hillborn, my paternal great grandmother, became the fourth wife of my maternal great grandfather.” 

Grandfather A.J. (Alma Josiah) and Effie had six children. A.J. attended the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph, returned to Mindemoya and built Wagg’s Creamery in 1901, producing butter, milk and ice cream using cream and milk from local farmers. A.J. also bought his dad’s store and sold dairy products, meat, groceries, clothing and feed for livestock. In 1945 when their son, Doug died during the Second World War, A.J. asked his sons-in-law Duff Brown and Doug Becks to take over Wagg’s Ltd. The gate and arches to the Mindemoya Cemetery were donated by A.J. and Effie in memory of their son Doug. Douglas Drive in downtown Mindemoya is named in his honour.

The Wagg General Store in Mindemoya.

In 1955, Wagg’s won the ‘butter quality award’ for the best butter in Ontario. Two Wagg farms were raising Ayrshire cows and Yorkshire hogs. Turkeys and chickens were processed too. A.J. built a warehouse for bulk foods behind the store in Mindemoya and had the foresight to buy nine houses, one of which became the telephone company and another the Bank of Montreal. 

At the height of his business, A.J., an astute businessman, employed about 35 people. He inherited the role of postmaster, was a regular churchgoer and was Sunday School superintendent at Mindemoya United Church for 25 years. Getting hydro and the railway to the Island were also goals he shared with a few other businessmen. A.J. played a role in getting the privately owned Mindemoya hospital turned over to the Red Cross Society. He died on Christmas Day, 1960 and was inducted into the Agricultural Hall of Fame in Milton on June 8, 1986.

“Dad, Dufferin Vincer Brown, was born in Brantford in 1912 to Charles and Ada (Vincer) Brown, the youngest of three boys. Sadly, his mother died when he was four months old. The Brown family raised the two older boys and Duff was brought back to Manitoulin by his maternal grandmother, Sarah Vincer Hillborn, who raised him.  

After finishing school, dad worked in the Bank of Montreal, enlisted in the army in 1942, joined the Royal Canadian Ordinance Corps and was shipped overseas two months after marrying Marion Laurel Wagg in October of 1942. He returned home after the war with an interest in flying and bought his first plane in the late 1950s, a four-seater, with skis and floats. His second plane, also a four-seater, was on wheels which he kept in our hanger at Gore Bay airport. “Dad was fun-loving and high spirited and loved to coach hockey and play golf and baseball. He was a charter member at Brookwood Brae Golf Course, joined the Lions Club, worked in the family business and served on council.” 

The early years of the Wagg Creamery in Mindemoya.

“Mom worked as the office manager at Wagg’s Ltd. all her life and took over as postmaster during WWII. After the war, dad resumed his title of postmaster. Mom was a staunch and loyal member of Mindemoya United Church, a long-time UCW member, a choir member and, eventually, choir director. Family was especially important to mom and dad and we had many gatherings of the Wagg Clan which was easy to do because most of us lived in Mindemoya and those that didn’t made sure to visit every summer.”

Duff and Marion had three children, Frank, Ruth and Jean, all born within three years of each other. Marilyn Ruth, the middle child, was born August 20, 1949 in the Mindemoya Red Cross Hospital. With both parents running the family business, babysitters were needed. “We lived over our store until I was four when we moved to our new house on Lake Mindemoya at the end of Wagg’s Lane.” 

“I rode on Mike Smith’s school bus for 13 years. I loved school! At 12, I delivered the Toronto Star Weekly and later worked for dad in the post office. For the Grade 2 school play, Ruth had the role of ‘Mrs. Rabbit.’ “I still remember my lines: ‘Here Flopsy, here Mopsy, here Peter Cottontail.’ “I absolutely loved the school fairs and Christmas concerts.” 

Like her mother, Mindemoya United Church captured Ruth’s interest. She both attended and later taught Sunday School and sang in the youth choir, joined Explorers and then CGIT (Canadian Girls in Training). Music lessons from Mrs. McQuay and, later, Mrs. Hill offered new opportunities and at 12, Ruth became the pianist for the Sunday School and at 14, the church organist. A highlight for Ruth in 1962 was being ‘Miss J.F. Anglin’ in the Island Centennial Beauty Pageant, part of the centennial celebrations for the Island. 

High school was wonderful. Ruth was ‘the band,’ playing piano for the high school musicals. She played ball, learned to curl and became the female ping pong champion. Her organization and leadership skills earned her the status of Head Girl at Central Manitoulin High School in Mindemoya. At 17, she was selected to attend the Ontario Athletic Leadership Camp at Lake Couchiching for two weeks. “I was a camp counsellor at church camp in the summers at Aird Island in the North Channel, near Spanish. Dad would fly me in and out.” For years, Ruth was also a summer cashier at Wagg’s store. “When I attended McMaster University, dad would fly me down and back in his plane.” 

The summer of 1972 brought a new adventure when Craig came on the scene. “He was a summer medical student at the Red Cross Hospital, and Dr. McQuay jokingly told me he was putting me in charge. “Ruth and Craig’s first date was at the golf course. I was no expert and of course the ball just plopped in front of me when I teed off. Not an impressive beginning! His ball flew in a magnificent curve close to its destined target.” 

Craig shares a bit about his background. “My dad, John Alan Pettis, and mom Elaine (Ratcliffe) were both of English and Scottish ancestry. Dad had moved west with his family from New Glasgow, Nova Scotia when he was about six. Dad graduated from the University of Alberta in 1948 with a civil engineering degree. He worked as the sole engineer for Parks Canada, setting up roads, buildings, and trails in Jasper National Park.”

“The only doctor in the Jasper area was 85 years old, so mother headed for the Riverdale part of Edmonton well before I was born on April 30, 1949. A few years after we returned to Jasper, I had my tonsils out. It was a Catholic hospital; I was in a crib and a nun walked me to the operating table. It was a bit embarrassing for a mature four-year-old but the pumpkin pie afterwards helped to make up for it.” 

Yoho National Park near Banff became their next home. Craig, as a tot, recalls locking the bathroom door in their wartime house in Yoho National Park. “It was a keyed lock and I threw the key into the toilet. I remember it caused quite a commotion, getting the key and me out of our respective restraints. We lived on the side of a mountain and there was a magnificent creek on the property. I was told not to ride to that fast-running creek, but I had to check it out. I rode my bike right into it!”

“Kootenay National Park in British Columbia hired dad as the park superintendent. A year later he moved us back to Jasper National Park where he became the park superintendent for five years. One time, as I was collecting roadside bottles, the wheel fell off my wagon and the bottles rolled all over the road. Dad, the head honcho, had to help me pick up the bottles in his shirt and tie.”

Riding Mountain National Park, 60 miles north of Brandon, Manitoba was next. “It was exciting to live beside the tenth hole of the golf course. Between age 12 and 16, I picked up many balls for 50 cents an hour. I was standing in range of the flight path, on the other side of a hill, but I wasn’t hit. Luckily, I caught the attention of the pro who taught me to play. When we got to the Waterton Lakes National Park, we were living at the intersection of Montana, Alberta, and British Columbia.”

“I enjoyed playing competitive golf in the summer and being a member of our Boy Scout troop in the winter. I loved skiing off the top of our house into high snowbanks. As part of an older Boy Scouts group, I remember trekking up a mountain and leaving the younger group at the base camp. When we got back, we saw that their campfires had sunk six feet due to melting of deep snow. It was a strange sight.”

For Grade 11, Craig’s father was transferred to Ottawa, the head office for the National Parks. Craig spent the first two years at Carleton University in an undergraduate biology program before applying to medical school at Queen’s University in Kingston in 1970. “I thought at first I would become a park warden like dad, but then I became intrigued with medicine. It was here, in my second year, that I met Dr. McQuay whose wife was from the area.” Another connection would come from Dr. McQuay’s mother who had taught Ruth piano back home. Craig seemed destined to make Manitoulin part of his life. 

Craig came to the Island after his second year in medicine and met Ruth, who had graduated with a B.Sc. in nursing that spring. The new hospital had just opened, and Dr. McQuay was a good teacher. Dr. Pettis learned to take fish hooks out of various body parts and he delivered his first baby, Kenneth Craig Wood, named after Craig. He met a lot of Dr. McQuay’s patients and began to feel at home on the Island.

At the cottage.

Little Kenneth was a guest at the wedding for Ruth and Craig held at noon on the first day of September, 1973 in the United Church in Mindemoya. At 91 degrees, it was the hottest day on record for September 1 on Manitoulin. One of the wedding attendants fainted during the ceremony and the flower girl felt so ill that she had to sit down. Nevertheless, it was a beautiful wedding despite this, and the no-show photographer. The outdoor reception was held at the Brown home by the lake, followed by a short two-day honeymoon due to work schedules. 

Ruth worked briefly at both Kingston General Hospital and Hotel Dieu Hospital in that city before joining the staff at Queen’s University School of Nursing. Craig had one more year of medical school. Craig adds, “I was leaving our apartment early in the morning and Ruth would be coming off night shift. It was a challenging time. Our first Christmas dinner was celebrated in the cafeteria of Hotel Dieu Hospital.” Ruth recalls being happy to get a break in this routine when her dad and mom flew in for a visit.

Craig and Ruth have three children, Cynthia, Cheryl and Joel. For Cynthia’s birth, Craig had worked in labour and delivery all weekend at the hospital, arrived home Monday night, ate, and then rushed back to the hospital with Ruth for a short labour. “After two children, we bought our first house. We also ensured that all three children had piano and violin lessons.” 

On March 3, 1979, a terrible catastrophe occurred. “Mom and dad were heading to Florida for a holiday when their plane crashed while landing in bad weather in Charlottesville, Virginia. Both died instantly. We raced back to Manitoulin. It was a life-changing shock for the family, for the business and for the Manitoulin community. Cynthia was not yet three and Cheryl was not yet one. It took us 15 years before we could go to Charlottesville to see the mountainous site of the accident on that dark night.” 

“After our parents’ home was sold, we would stay with Aunt Gladys when we came to Manitoulin. She was our rock.” In 1983, the Pettis family moved again to a bigger home in Kingston and Ruth decided to take a multi-year break. Volunteering became a goal. “I played piano at our children’s school, became head of the parent council, president of the United Church Women and superintendent of the Sunday School. I love to play piano and organ when and where needed.” The Soulful Singers, a singing group for Alzheimer patients at a local secondary school, is fortunate to have Ruth play piano for them. Accompanying the Sunday School children during Vacation Bible School and in their annual Christmas pageant as well as joining the church band were also priorities.

“In 1985, a three-octave set of handbells was donated to the church and I have been ringing with the bell choir ever since, mostly in the church, but occasionally at concerts in the community. A highlight for us was performing on stage with the Kingston Symphony. On February 13, 2021, I performed in a virtual handbell choir of 36 bell ringers from across Ontario. I had recorded my own track, submitted it, then all the tracks were harmonized, creating a virtual choir.” Ruth accepted a new challenge in February 2021 by joining her church council. Craig spent his busy 43-year career as a family doctor as well as practicing occupational health with Dupont Canada. 

“About 15 years ago, both Craig and I began ballroom dancing lessons. We have our silver and bronze medals and are currently working on our gold medals. I was president of the dance club for three years and am still on the executive. Craig is the treasurer and manages the popular website. He also takes seniors’ photos at our church’s annual classics birthday party. Since COVID, Craig video-edits the weekly online church service and regularly puts his excellent photos online, synchronized with hymns and music. In addition, Craig is on the executive of our cottage association.”  

“Favourite pets? A lab named King, an ‘attack cat’ that was less liked, a poodle, Sam and Pebbles, a Dalmatian that jogged with me. Favourite season? Spring with its vibrant colours and fall, a crispness and relief from the heat,” offered by Craig and Ruth, respectively. “Favourite holidays? Coming to Mindemoya each summer,” Ruth shares. “One summer I flew back from Manitoulin to Kingston to see Craig who had stayed home because he wasn’t feeling well. He was going to join us later but wound up in the hospital with a ruptured appendix.” 

“My strengths?” Ruth offers, “playing piano, music, and organizational skills. Craig’s talents include being good with people, practical and a problem solver. He can fix almost anything. Photography is his hobby.” 

How did you react when you first met? “Positively. Dr. McQuay had told me he would be tall, dark and handsome, wearing a white lab coat.” Craig adds smiling, “She was my lady from day one.” 

Mentor? “Dr. McQuay was the doctor I wanted to be,” Craig offers. Ruth admires her Aunt Gladys, ‘Pippy.’ “She was wise and helpful. Because her cottage was next to our house, we visited often. She and mum spent a lot of time together in their shared vegetable and flower garden.” 

Recipe for happiness? “Discussing issues with aligning interests. We listen to each other and respect each other. COVID changes? More Zoom communication and staying in a bubble with our family.” 

“Our family lives in Kingston. Cynthia works as a manager with the Ministry of Health. She and Alex have two girls, Olivia and Evelyn. Cheryl is a physiotherapist at the hospital. She and Dan have two boys, Isaac and Joshua. Joel is a computer programmer for the Ministry of Health. He and Stephanie have Isla and Ian. I was a basketball statistician for our children. I enjoyed this and watching them play.”

“We help with babysitting and now home schooling during the pandemic. Our cottage is 40 minutes away and Manitoulin is only a few hours away each summer. Hobbies? In addition to those mentioned, online bridge for Ruth. Craig adds, “playing with my grandchildren, photography, and fixing the cottage when needed.” 

In 1976 Wagg’s Store was sold to J. Corrigan and C. Moggy and was renamed C & M. It subsequently sold and is now Jake’s Store. In 1981, Wagg’s Creamery was sold to Farquhar Dairies Ltd. In 2007 Farquhar’s closed the Mindemoya plant and in 2008, the creamery was demolished. “It’s gone but always remembered in our hearts,” Ruth says. “I loved growing up in Mindemoya; loved the people and enjoyed community events like strawberry socials, fish fries and turkey dinners. I always have a sense of belonging here, at home, in church, school and at work. It’s beautiful and I love bringing our kids to our second home. I get ‘withdrawal’ symptoms if away too long. No matter where we go, we always come home to Manitoulin Island.”