When you find something in life that you love to do, you hold on to it with all your might.
That is what North Bay’s Joan Wilkes is doing with her love of figure skating and coaching.
For the past 65 years, Wilkes has dedicated her life to mentoring and inspiring skaters at the North Bay Figure Skating Club.
Looking back over her career, Wilkes acknowledges that she gets as much out of skating as she gives.
“Very much so. I just love it and I’ve always said when it becomes a job I will quit, but it is not a job yet,” she chuckles.
“I’ve actually been coaching for 70 years, 65 in North Bay with one club.”
Even today at 88, Wilkes, continues to coach.
“I enjoy being with the little ones and I enjoy watching them progress. There are some children that have a little harder time progressing, but you just hang in there with them, and eventually, they accomplish something. It makes you feel so good,” said Wilkes.
“It is just something I love to do, and I love children. I love to see them progress and I like to watch them be happy that they’ve done something, that means a lot.“
As a youngster, Wilkes actually wanted to ski, not skate. Luckily for the countless young people who learned to skate under her tutelage, skating won out.
A skating coach in her hometown of Kirkland Lake saw something in her at a young age, that given the right training, would see Wilkes go on to do great things.
“I skated in Kirkland Lake and I competed at the Canadians in Paris, and my partner and I won a bronze medal. And then I went to Kitchener to train with my coach for single Canadians, and I broke my ankle a week before. So that was my big disappointment,” said Wilkes.
“I went back to Kirkland Lake and I coached from 1948 to 1951, and then I went in Holiday on Ice. After Holiday on Ice, I came here to visit my fiancé Danny Wilkes, who was playing hockey for the local Blackhawks team, and I never left North Bay.”
A chance meeting with a former roommate got her an invitation to skate with the North Bay club.
“When I got off the ice, the board of directors came up to me and asked if I was interested in coaching in North Bay. So that’s how we ended up here,” said Wilkes.
“I started in the old arena on King Street. I taught there and then I came with the building here, (Memorial Gardens). “
People tell Wilkes she must be in great shape because she continues to skate, but Wilkes begs to differ.
When it comes to demonstrating spirals and jumps, she leaves that to the one of her senior skaters.
“The only thing that really gets exercised is my mouth,” laughs Wilkes.
“That’s because you’re talking like a school teacher, you’re talking all the time. If you need a demonstration, you call over one of your senior skaters. I wouldn’t try it.”
As a coach for over six decades, she has witnessed interest in the sport rise and fall.
“Right now we’re in a building program, and it is doing very well. We have both boys and girls. We have a lot of males in the Can Skate program, where they learn to skate.”
She believes competition is good at a young age.
“The skating system has changed so much, and they’re trying not to have the younger ones compete right away which I disagree with. I think competition is very healthy.”
At a gathering to celebrate her accomplishments, Wilkes was presented with a trophy which read, “In appreciation for your 65 years of dedication and service to the North Bay Figure Skating Club and Synchronized Skating Board.”
Sharon O’Connor Vice-president of the North Bay Figure Skating Club, calls Wilkes an inspiration.
O’Connor says it is a tough job, getting up early to be at the rink coaching children before school, and again on weekends.
”It is a small token, but something she can look at everyday to know that we have appreciated her for everyone of those years she has been with us. That’s 65 years just with the North Bay Skating Club, that doesn't include the years she was with Make it a Date, our local annual competition, and with the North Bay Synchronized Skating Club as well,” said O’Connor.
“I think people see that she is a staple of the club. Having her here is priceless because she’s the one who tells us different things they’ve tried over the years when numbers have been low, and the different events the club used to run. Just the history and the livelihood of skating itself, is very inspirational.”
Among those celebrating Wilkes accomplishments was long-time friend and fellow coach Paul Tatton, who now coaches in Windsor.
He was a young man when he coached a spring school in North Bay, alongside Wilkes.
“I was 19. I had just come off the Canadian Championships in Calgary.”
The reunion was emotional.
“We were both in tears when we saw each other. I haven’t seen her in 42 years. Seeing her again was just like it was yesterday. We looked at each other and we recognized each other immediately, so I guess we both aged the same,” laughed Tatton.
“I always loved Joan. It was her manner. She was always into skating and always made people feel good. She had that special quality. She didn’t have to yell at anybody, she was very friendly, but she really knew what she was doing. I have a lot of respect for Joan otherwise I wouldn’t have driven all this way.” Tatton said with a wide smile.
When Arnold Cline was 16 or 17 years-old, his job was to spin the records at the arena in Kirkland Lake, where he developed a friendship with Wilkes.
They reminisced about their hometown experiences.
“We both came from Kirkland Lake. I was a rink rat in the Kirkland Lake arena as a high school student, and became the record player for the skating club and during public skating. In a local skating program, I was classified as the musical director. All I did was play records. She calls me her music man,” laughed Cline.
“Everyone tells me I should write a book,” said Wilkes.
“I have a lot of stories to tell. Some are good, some aren’t. They said it should be two different books,” she laughed.
Maybe she will find the time when coaching becomes a job, but it doesn’t appear that is likely to happen anytime soon.