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Adored Antigonish educator, artist celebrates 100th birthday

Mary MacGillivray holds a self-portrait she made in 1942 during her 100th birthday celebration Nov. 23 at the R.K. MacDonald Nursing Home in Antigonish. Corey LeBlanc
Mary MacGillivray holds a self-portrait she made in 1942 during her 100th birthday celebration Nov. 23 at the R.K. MacDonald Nursing Home in Antigonish. Corey LeBlanc - Corey LeBlanc

Love is all you need

ANTIGONISH, N.S. —

When the Beatles released their hit Love Is All You Need, it is safe to say they weren’t thinking of Mary MacGillivray, but she could serve as the personification of that tune.    

The adored educator and artist reflected on secrets to longevity as she celebrated her 100th birthday Nov. 23 – with family, friends, former students and colleagues at the R.K. MacDonald Nursing Home in Antigonish.    

“Love everybody,” she said.    

As she gestured towards everyone sharing her special day, MacGillivray added that has been the key to having a long and happy life.    

Born in the Ashby area of Sydney, Cape Breton, she grew up during the Depression, but that hardship didn’t mean that the Burke family didn’t have plenty of what was “truly important” – love.    

“I am very proud of that,” MacGillivray said of her roots.    

The St. F.X. graduate has shared that legacy of her childhood with countless people, including hundreds of students she touched as a school teacher.    

“I have always loved children,” MacGillivray said.    

One of her former students – Allan Roberts – arrived at the festivities with a souvenir of their time together, a blue slip of paper – not even wrinkled much, considering its age – that displayed the impeccable penmanship of MacGillivray.   

Allan Roberts and Mary MacGillivray hold his Grade 1 report card, from 1943, during her 100th birthday gathering at the R.K. MacDonald Nursing Home. Corey LeBlanc
Allan Roberts and Mary MacGillivray hold his Grade 1 report card, from 1943, during her 100th birthday gathering at the R.K. MacDonald Nursing Home. Corey LeBlanc

It was his Grade 1 report card from 1943, when she taught Roberts at Cape George School.    

“She was an exceptional talent,” he said.    

Noting the “war was on” that year, Roberts remembered one of the many ways in which she shared her abilities with students.    

“No matter where you sat he was looking at you,” he said, with a laugh, of her memorable drawing of then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill that hung on the wall of the classroom. 

An open house         

That year was one of those, as a young woman, she spent teaching in “county schools.”    

Once she and her late husband – Hugh Daniel MacGillivray, who grew up on a farm in Maryvale, Antigonish County, and spent his career as a salesman for Eastern Auto – started their  family, which now includes four children, eight grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, she decided to focus on being a stay-at-home mother.    

That didn’t mean she stopped educating children – both hers and those from other families in Antigonish.      

In 1960, as part of her journey as a life-long educator, MacGillivray opened an art school in the basement of her Hawthorne Street home.    

Her daughter Rose Ann, who was seven at the time, said her friends were many of the first students. Each paid 25 cents for each Saturday morning session.    

Before long, there were two classes, and then another for pre-schoolers. Afternoon sessions, from Monday to Friday, soon followed.    

When she got older, Rose Ann remembered convincing her mother to offer a class for teenagers.    

And, over the years, mixed in were sessions for adults that were dropping off their children for classes.    

“There was always someone in our house,” Rose Ann quipped.    

MacGillivray also hosted an annual art show to celebrate the work of her students.

‘Truly inspirational’    

Andrew Murray is one the students who spent a lot of time in that home studio.    

While his mentor un-wrapped his gift during her party – a photo of the pair in front of a mural he created for St. James United Church in Antigonish, Murray told its story, one that began a  few weeks earlier.    

Andrew Murray was one of the many former students that visited Mary MacGillivray during her 100th birthday celebration. Corey LeBlanc
Andrew Murray was one of the many former students that visited Mary MacGillivray during her 100th birthday celebration. Corey LeBlanc

The Town of Antigonish councillor, who is also an accomplished artist, was working on a project at the R.K., when the long-time friends struck up a conversation.    

MacGillivray, describing herself as a “staunch Catholic,” asked Murray to take her to his church. He said her goal was to set an example for a world that is – more and more – ripe with  religious intolerance.    

“You have nice clothes – I have seen them,” he recalled, with a laugh, of how she suggested he should dress better – not in working attire – for their upcoming outing.    

Not only for that day, but also for the birthday celebration, the nattily clad Murray said he made sure he dressed for the occasion.    

“It is huge – she has always been truly inspirational for me,” Murray said after sharing some time with MacGillivray.    

He reflected on how much she meant to a then 10-year-old, as tears of what he described as “joy” welled in his eyes. 

“She will always be amazing,” Murray said.

‘So well deserved’    

At the age of 55, with her children getting older, MacGillivray made a return to the public school system, spending more than a decade as an art teacher at Dr. John Hugh Gillis Regional High School.    

Bruce MacKinnon – the internationally-acclaimed editorial cartoonist with the Chronicle Herald – was one of her students at the Regional.    

A creation for Mary MacGillivray, his former teacher, by noted Chronicle Herald editorial cartoonist and Antigonish native Bruce MacKinnon. CONTRIBUTED
A creation for Mary MacGillivray, his former teacher, by noted Chronicle Herald editorial cartoonist and Antigonish native Bruce MacKinnon. CONTRIBUTED

“She presented opportunities to freely explore different types of art,” the Antigonish native said, remembering those classroom experiences as “extremely positive.”    

Noting they “go way back,” MacKinnon also starting taking classes in her home studio, when he was in Grade 5.    

“I don’t know if my parents saw something that could be developed, or they wanted to get me off their hands for a couple hours,” he joked.    

Although the focus was on creativity, MacKinnon noted that didn’t mean she wasn’t always there to provide advice or answer questions.    

“It was such a positive way in which to grow,” he said.     

MacKinnon praised her ability to inspire and groom students’ love for art.    

“That was so important – it is like learning an instrument, especially if you are young, you won’t put anything into it,” he said.    

MacKinnon said he has “always admired her work,” including as a portrait artist, He added, while growing up, a couple of her pieces featuring his older siblings, hung in his family’s house.    

“She is extremely skilled,” he said of MacGillivray, who continues to paint as a centenarian.    

A piece of her most recent work was part of a display visitors admired during the 100th birthday celebration.    

“I am so happy that she has had such a fruitful life because she has had such a positive influence on countless people,” MacKinnon said.

   

   

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