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Family came first — always. A look back at Dolly's life

"She definitely was a great example of family connectiveness' Dave Crozier

It is a fortunate person who can lay claim to having someone in their life who has inspired, guided and loved them unconditionally.

Ellen “Dolly” Gibb was one such person, known for her countless acts of kindness and generosity throughout her long life.

At the time of her death in North Bay at the age of 114 years and 40 days, Dolly was the oldest living person in North America.

The Gerontology Research Group had Dolly listed as the 9th oldest living person in the world.

Her passing grabbed the attention of people around the globe.

Back home in North Bay, family and friends gathered recently for a celebration of her life.

Photographs provided a snapshot into her world; the people, places and fun times that meant so much to Dolly.

On display were certificates and notes recognizing her milestone birthdays including a congratulatory message from Queen Elizabeth II on her 112th birthday.

“This is definitely a celebration because she was amazing, and she was great right until the end. She was very blessed,” said granddaughter Jane Wilkinson.

When she turned 114, Nipissing-Timiskaming MP Anthony Rota presented Dolly with a certificate from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“And Nan was very excited because she loved Pierre,” said Wilkinson.

She had been Canada’s oldest living person since January, 2016 and the 5th oldest in Canadian history.

“She’d laugh when we brought it up, but I think she just couldn’t believe it. At one point she was in the top 50 in the western world. She was moving up the list of course, and every time you told her that she would say ‘that couldn’t be true,” said her grandson Dave Crozier, Wilkinson’s brother.  

When asked about her secret to a long and fulfilling life, Wilkinson said her grandmother would simply shrug her shoulders.

“She was very shy on that front. She would just say ‘I don’t know.’ To me she always made herself a good healthy meal, even though she was eating by herself. It was always butter and creams right to the end but everything in moderation. And of course, she loved walking.”

Regular walks, family, a good sense of humour, a positive disposition, healthy eating habits and great genetics appear to be the contributing factors for a long and happy life. 

When Dolly was born on April 26, 1905 to Virginia Beauvette and John Box in Winnipeg, Sir Wilfred Laurier was serving as Canada’s seventh prime minister.

Dolly spent the first 36 years of her life living in her hometown, before moving to Thunder Bay where she stayed for 64 years.

Eventually she settled in North Bay to be closer to family, which included her daughter Sue.

”If you can imagine, she sells her little war time house in Thunder Bay when she is 100 and moves to North Bay. She decided she couldn’t do it alone anymore,” said Crozier.

The supercentenarian is remembered as having a sharp mind and was “serene, content, grateful and positive to the end.”

While Dolly lived with hearing and mobility challenges experienced by most elderly people, but she was fortunate not to have had any chronic ailments, with only one brief hospital stay since giving birth to her daughter Sue in 1939.

It was only within the last 5 or 6 years that Dolly came to depend on a wheelchair for mobility. 

“Despite her health challenges as she aged, she had a lot of gratitude about the life she had been given, the fact that she had been so well taken care of by my sister Jane and Derek my brother-in-law here in North Bay. And our mother of course,” said Crozier.

Among her many positive qualities, Dolly is remembered for her sense of humour. Family members shared how she loved to laugh and enjoyed being teased.

They also noted that Dolly was very particular about her appearance, having a keen sense of fashion.

“She always dressed to the nines and she had fur heels. That is the only thing I remember her wearing in the wintertime, never boots. She had high heels that were fur-lined,” laughed Wilkinson.

“Going through pictures we always thought the only time she ever wore pants was when she was 100, but we found one picture of her in pants when we were painting her house in Thunder Bay.”

Dolly took care to look presentable even while doing chores.   

“She did mow her lawn until she was about 80. She had a small house, but a huge lawn and she would mow it on her own in her skirts,” grinned Crozier.

“There was a little bit of vanity for sure, a lot of humility too, but she definitely didn’t look her age. When she turned 65 living in Thunder Bay, she would have been eligible for a bus pass, but she didn’t get one until she was about 80. She didn’t want people to know her age.”

As she continued to hit milestone birthdays, Dolly became somewhat of a celebrity.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield shone a spotlight on Dolly and her longevity during his national tour.

“He had never met her. He had just read about her and had admired the resilience that she had and zest for life. That was the keyword he used, ‘zest.’ So that was a nice salute. He talked about her for a few minutes with her picture projected in the background,” explained Crozier.

Her story was eventually shared in various media outlets across the country.

“She was featured in Maclean’s magazine in its Canada 150 birthday edition, in an article written by her great-granddaughter, Brittany Duggan.”

Dolly had an interest in world affairs, staying on top of the stories and people making headlines.

Wilkinson said her grandmother had a fondness for the Royal family.

“On Microsoft news on social media, one of our cousins from out west had taken a snap of an article on Kate Middleton, Nan and a little picture of Donald Trump. And let me tell you, that would have made her day because she loved the royal family, but Trump was not her favourites,” laughed Wilkinson.

Nothing in the world meant more to Dolly than family.

“She definitely was a great example of family connectedness. She had the advantage of having a great friend who drove her across the country. He was a national salesperson. So, without a lot of money she was able to spend weeks with us and take care of us there,” said Crozier.

“She did appreciate facetime or skype especially with the relatives out Kamloops way. That was how they were able to see her, and they would appreciate that face to face time. She remembered all the kids and where they were and what they were doing. When you think of it, that is a lot of people to keep track of.” 

With each passing year, time spent with family grew increasingly more important.  

“When Nan turned 102, we wanted to have a birthday party and a lot of relatives were coming home. Nan didn’t want to have it in a restaurant or a hall. She wanted to have it here. We were going through renovations at the time. We had a stove and a refrigerator and that was it. We had 40 people come for dinner and Nan was happy because she was surrounded by family. It didn’t matter what anything looked like, as long as she had family,” said Wilkinson.

Dolly’s love of family was evident again when she shared a lottery winfall.  

“In 1988 she won Lotto 649. She had won $234,000 and she was extremely generous with all of us. The only thing that she really did for herself was buy a television and airline tickets to fly to North Bay or Kamloops from Thunder Bay,” said Wilkinson. 

“It was always exciting when Nan would come to visit. She would always bake her scones. She is famous for her scones.”

Over the years Dolly’s family also benefited from her many hobbies which included making afghans, sewing and crafts.

In her final years, she continued to receive the love and support of family and the professional care she deserved.

“We had the advantage, in the end, of having the home care team at Casselholme. She had little relationships with all of them. She remembered their names all the way through,” said Crozier.

By all accounts Dolly would have been delighted that her celebration of life focused on what was truly important to her, having family and friends together under one roof.