It was the autumn of 1931 and my mother was beginning her fifth year of post-elementary education at Toronto Western Commerce, a diversified educational centre situated in the Runnymede-Annette Street area of Ontario’s capital. It was an hour’s walk from the university to her home, but with the country mired in the ever-tightening grip of the Great Depression, economic thrift was paramount. For her part, Mom chose to walk the distance for the year’s entirety in order to save the twice-a-day nickel streetcar fare.
Helping pass the time on this daily trek was fellow student Peggy Phillips; the two had met early in the first semester and discovered their families lived but a few blocks apart. Thus set the foundation for a friendship that would transcend seven decades.
Moving the calendar ahead to February 1940, we find my mother newly-married and living on a farm with her in-laws in Grey County near the village of Eugenia. No hydro, no running water, no indoor plumbing, friends few and far between – it comprised a long winter for a city girl. No wonder she looked forward to a visit from her old friend.
Peggy was driving a recently purchased Studebaker Champion. The navy-blue Champion Deluxe, an all-new vehicle introduced for the 1939 season, had quickly become the company’s most popular model.
Peggy was able to drive only as far as the hamlet of Rock Mills, some three miles from the farm. That final distance proved to be courtesy horse and sleigh, provided by Mom’s father-in-law. Although snowplows did a reasonable job clearing main roads, back concessions and side roads received only the most basic snow removal technology. No wing existed on rural plows of that era; the machine simply burrowed through the snow, leaving in its wake a trail barely wide enough for a team of horses to meet.
For a life-long Toronto resident, this rural experience was an eye-opener. “It was a beautiful sunny day,” Peggy recalled, “and such an exhilarating experience to be gliding along under that brilliant blue sky, snowbanks towering either side, and the harness bells jingling… it was as if I was in the middle of a scenic Christmas card!”
Except for a twist of fate, the story of Peggy Phillips and her Studebaker might never have transpired. In August of 1939 with the intent of visiting relatives in England, Peggy had booked round-trip passage from Montreal to Liverpool on the British ocean liner SS Athenia. However, as developments in Europe deteriorated and the possibility of world war loomed ever nearer, Peggy began to have second thoughts and cancelled her plans. The designated funds for the ocean passage went instead towards the purchase of the new Studebaker Champion, one of 33,905 sold that model year by the Indiana carmaker.
Despite the imminent threat of war, at 1 pm September 2, the SS Athenia set sail from Liverpool for Montreal. At noon the following day, Great Britain officially declared war on Germany; later that evening, a German submarine patrolling the North Atlantic darkness 200 miles west of the Hebrides Islands, spotted the ocean liner. The sub had left base earlier that week with a score of others to be ready when, not if, war broke out. Believing the ship to be a troop carrier or armed merchant cruiser, the German submarine zeroed in on its target.
Peggy said she would never forget this Toronto Star headline the following morning:
OCEAN LINER ATHENIA WITH 1,400 ABOARD TORPEDOED OFF COAST OF ENGLAND!
It’s to the utmost credit of the crew and close proximity of other ships, that most of the passengers of the SS Athenia were rescued; however, 117 perished in the waters of the North Atlantic that night nearly eighty years ago.
It’s interesting how a single event has the ability to change the course of history, be it large or small, earth-shattering or insignificant. An alternate decision that summer and a Toronto family may have lost their only daughter; my mother might have lost a close friend and been robbed of the potential of a lifetime friendship; and a South Bend Indiana auto manufacturer may have sold just 33,904 Studebaker Champions