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Behind the Lens: Ruth Owen Whitelegg


By Elinor Florence
June 15, 2016

Article from Elinor Florence' blog

Readers, please note: My big news this month is that my novel Bird's Eye View hit Bestseller Status in the Toronto Star daily newspaper, and Canada's national newspaper, The Globe & Mail! Thank you so much to everyone who bought my book. You can read more at the bottom of this page.

But first, a story about one admirable Canadian woman who served her country well, and photographed her experiences along the way.

Memories of Ruth Owen Whitelegg

1. Ruth in Winter Jacket ed feature

Ruth Owen Whitelegg of Brantford, Ontario, trained as a photographer for the Royal Canadian Air Force and served at RCAF Centralia, Ontario, during World War Two. Her photo album gives us a fascinating glimpse into wartime history, crammed with snapshots of life on a Canadian air training base.

Ruth was born on March 12, 1925 to parents Stanley Owen, an electrician at the Brantford Telephone Company, and Evelynn Owen, a telephone operator.

She was one of seven children including brothers Clyde, Filo, Frank and Evan; and sisters Grace and Marjory. Clyde also served in the RCAF, and Filo was in the Canadian Army.

Ruth joined up on April 16, 1943, one month after her eighteenth birthday. She did her basic training at Rockcliffe, Ontario. The petite brunette then trained as a photographer before being posted to one of the largest air training bases in Canada at Centralia, Ontario.

After the war, Ruth moved to Vancouver and was working in a bank when she met her future husband, Kenneth James Whitelegg. Ken was an avid rugby and football player, and even tried out for the B.C. Lions in 1954. (Unfortunately he developed pneumonia and didn’t make the team.)

Ken and Ruth were married in Vancouver on June 21, 1951. After their oldest son Brent was born, she stayed home and had two more sons, Shawn and Kenneth Junior.

When Ken found work on the Alaska Highway, the young family moved to Prince George in 1956, and back to Vancouver in 1958. They continued to move for Ken’s work, first to Whitby, Ontario, and then to Calgary. In 1980 Ken and Ruth retired and moved to beautiful Peachland, B.C., where they remained until their deaths. Ken served as municipal councillor for several years.

I spoke to their youngest son Ken recently about his memories of Ruth Owen Whitelegg. Typical of most women who joined the armed forces in World War Two, Ruth led a full and active life.

“Once she got her driver’s licence there was no stopping her,” Ken recalled. “When we lived in Whitby she volunteered at the local hospital and for the curling club. She arranged bonspiels for both men and women. She took us boys to guitar lessons, hockey, lacrosse and often to the hospital to get stitches for all our injuries!

“She started golfing around 1960 and golfed for many years. Bowling was her natural sport, and she set records at the Peachland Bowling Alley.”

On the home front, Ken said his mother “was always doing or collecting something.” She loved people, dogs and cats, snakes and fish. She collected stamps, played cards, loved visiting flea markets and auction sales, and took plenty of pictures. She never stopped practising the photography skills she learned in the air force.

Ruth’s oldest son Brent Owen Whitelegg passed away in 2001. Her second son Shawn Robert Whitelegg lives in Greenwood, B.C.; and her youngest Kenneth Lee Whitelegg lives in Calgary. He is married to Laurie Gay Mackenzie and they have three children: Stuart (married to Traci Webster, with one daughter Brooklynn), Joseph, and Kayla.

Ruth died in 2007, and her husband Ken died in 2014. While sorting out their possessions, the family discovered a photo album from Ruth’s air force days and gave it to the Peachland Historical Society. The society decided that the album belonged at a museum specializing in wartime history, so they donated it to the Bomber Command Museum in Nanton, Alberta.

The following photos and text were taken from her album by my fellow writer Anne Gafiuk of Calgary, who has written two wartime books of her own.

By Anne Gafiuk

Leading Aircraftwoman Ruth Eva Owen, Service Number W312752, was a photographer with the Photographic Unit in the Royal Canadian Air Force at No. 9 Elementary Flying Training School, located at Centralia, Ontario, one of the largest British Commonwealth Air Training Plan stations in Canada.

Paging through her photo album, I saw that she made notations on some of the photographs, but not all. Unfortunately many subjects are unidentified, and on others she noted only their first names.

Ruth trained at No. 1 Photo Centre in Rockcliffe, Ontario, near Ottawa. This is where all the RCAF recruits did their basic training, and the photographers then remained for their technical training.

2. No. 1 Photo Centre Rockcliffe ed feature

 3. Classroom ed feature

This photo shows what the classroom for photographers looked like, with simple wooden tables and benches.

 

Ruth graduated with Class 28. She is seated in the photograph below in the front row, fifth from the left.

Amazingly, the host of Wartime Wednesdays, Elinor Florence, interviewed one of the other women in this class before she died! Lou Pound Marr is seated just two places away from Ruth, in the front row, third from left.

After graduating Lou was posted to Dauphin, Manitoba, and you can read her story here: Lou Marr: RCAF Camerawoman.

Read the full article here.