Joanna Wilson: A lifetime of caring

Joanna Wilson: A lifetime of caring

By Lorne Eckersley

Creston’s longest-serving Town Councillor has a history of caring and helping that goes back to her family’s emigration from England when she was a youngster.

“Moving from England and leaving not only our possessions but knowing we wouldn’t likely see many of our family members again probably shaped me in many different ways,” Joanna Wilson said last Friday.

Wilson made the ocean voyage with her mother and baby brother, Alan, as a 6-year-old, sailing from Liverpool to Halifax. A week after arriving in Canada, the family was welcomed by Joanna’s dad, who was waiting anxiously in Nelson, where he had gone ahead to prepare for this family’s relocation.

“My little brother was just 18 months old when we came to Canada, and I looked after him most of the time,” she said. “I could understand his speech, and it’s the first recollection I have of feeling useful.”

Their first home as a reunited family was in Robson, and after a year they moved to Nelson, where they would spend three years.

A final move to Creston came when she was 10, and two years later Joanna became a second mom to her new little sister, Janice.

Attending Adam Robertson Elementary School opened up another opportunity to feel useful.

“I noticed that the cafeteria staff seemed really busy as the lunch hour ended, so I would stay to help clear the tables before I left the room.”

Shy by nature, Wilson was a good student, but didn’t have the confidence to stand out in the crowd. In high school, she wouldn’t even consider suggestions that she run for student council or become a Blossom Festival queen candidate. The shyness continued when she went off to pursue a post-secondary education at the University of British Columbia.

“I just didn’t have the confidence, and I missed Creston and my family terribly.”

Her first marriage was to a fellow student, also a Creston fellow. Eventually they would embark on travels that would change her life, and give her an immeasurable boost of confidence.

“When I was 22 we bicycled to Ottawa,” she recalled. “I had never undertaken anything like that, and I got in good physical condition while we were riding, not before.”

Then they were off to Europe, where they cycled for months.

“I saw Michelangelo’s David in Florence on my 23rd birthday,” Wilson said.

The introduction to art, history and architecture reinforced her early interest in the arts, which had blossomed by the time she was four.

“My dad taught me to play piano by ear. I work out the chords for our Sunday school songs, and asked the pianist if I could play for Sunday school when she was away. So at 4, I had my first gig!”

After her marriage ended she began to date Alan Wilson, whose father Charlie was a well-known Kuskonook figure with a lengthy tenure as an RDCK regional director.

“I was definitely politicized by the Wilson family!”

Raising two children in Kuskanook could have been isolating, but she found that she could earn money teaching piano lessons, and traveled as far as Crawford Bay to see her students.

She also supported Alan in his many public endeavours, and became a member of the Creston Rotary Club when he sponsored her.

But the rich life that they shared together was about to be derailed. Alan had succeeded his father as a regional director, and was involved in countless community projects, including the Prince Charles Auditorium and fundraising for a grand piano. Joanna was beginning to take a more active independent role, and was a founding director of the Creston Valley Hospice Society, for which she also volunteered.

The skills she learned through hospice were put to the test when Alan was diagnosed with cancer in 2001.

“It was because of my experience with hospice, and what I learned from Dr. William Mitchell-Banks that I was able to care for Alan in our home in Kuskanook, right to the end. Our Rotary club was also incredibly supportive, building a ramp to help him get in and out of the house.”

Friends encouraged her to succeed Alan as regional director, which she refused to do, and then to run for School Trustee. She eventually agreed.

“I was acclaimed, which made me happy because I didn’t have to campaign, something I had never done before,” she said. “It was an easy entry to the political arena.”

She entered political life in turbulent times.

“Our first big subject to deal with was school closures,” she recalled. “I couldn’t sit for long without needing to speak up, which had never been easy for me. But I had things to say and I learned to say them.”

After one term she moved to Creston, having bought a house a half block from Creston Town Hall.

“That gave me the idea to run in the 2005 municipal election. It was a terrifying thought, but I had to go for it—I had seen all the good things that my husband and father-in-law had accomplished in local government.”

With her background and experience, she campaigned on an arts and culture platform.

“It seemed to strike a chord with voters,” she admitted. Wilson finished second overall in the voting for Town Council and became the only female on that council.

“I quite enjoyed it, although I had to watch hockey and baseball so I had something to talk about with my fellow councillors! Joe Snopek was a great mayor and I was encouraged to speak up and do things I had a passion for. I enjoyed the process, seeing things through from discussion to conclusion.”

In that first term, her council had spearheaded a downtown revitalization project, which encouraged her to run again in 2008.

“I really wanted the beautification of our downtown area to continue, and fortunately the other councillors agreed.”

In her second term the discussion of replacing the firehall arose.

“I really wanted to see that through, too! I am just sorry it took so long.”

Town Councillor is a part-time job, and Wilson continued to teach music and also started a photography business and gallery with her friend and neighbour Geri Buchanan. Her community service grew exponentially.

She was asked to become a member of the Auditorium Society, and eventually served as president for many years. Members of the Arts Council drafted her to join, and at the annual general meeting none of those present wanted to serve as president.

“I wanted to see it fluorish, so I took on the role.” Under her leadership the group established an office and gift shop in the Chamber of Commerce building.

Her keyboard skills have always been in demand, and Wilson has been an organist for countless funerals and weddings, and played for all of the Creston Footlighters’ musicals from 1995-2016.

With a houseful of local art, it’s no surprise that many of her volunteer efforts have included the visual arts. In 1995 she started the Creston Art Walk, visiting businesses along Canyon Street to find locations to display local art.

“It was difficult to generate interest at first, and I was making those visits while carrying my grandson, too!”

Art Walk did start, and for many years it was a popular way to promote Creston Valley artists. A conversation with Boswell’s Beth Penny led to extending the program along the East Shore, and Art Walk/Art Drive was born in 2000.

With another friend, piano teacher Audrey Johnson, Wilson founded the Creston Festival of the Arts after seeing a similar success in Cranbrook. The adjudicated competition for music students helped raise the profiles of many young musicians.

In recent years a Teen Art Walk organized by Wilson has also helped Creston’s creative youth get recognition.

While attending a conference in Ottawa she saw sculptures dotting the downtown area, and came home with the idea of doing something similar in Creston. Soon she was helping to ignite the formation of the Creston Valley Public Art Connection.

Wilson now says that her involvement as a volunteer with the Therapeutic Activation Program for Seniors helps keep her enthusiasm at a high level. She plays piano weekly, leading a chorus of singers that has grown to 25-30 members. They perform regularly for residents of Swan Valley Lodge and Crest View Village.

“I really enjoy that,” she smiled. “We take requests and we all have such a good time!”

The grandmother of five continues her busy volunteer schedule, sitting as a director for Creston and District Society for Community Living, Creston Library and Creston Valley Chamber of Commerce.

Now in her 15th year as a Town Councillor, Wilson said she continues to enjoy public life.

“I am very proud to be on our present council and to see the great work our staff is doing, especially now, in response to the Covid-19 crisis.”

In her 60-odd years as a Kuskonook and Creston resident, Wilson has never stopped giving back to a region that became home when she was pulled away from other family members—and her beloved piano—in England.

“I’m a caring person,” she said. “And I love to share my own talents, skills and energy to help make ours a better community for everyone.”


Joanna Wilson: A lifetime of caring