A lifelong learner, Dr. Elsie Gerdes helped to create UNBC as one of the University's Founders, saw her relatives graduate from UNBC, and after her passing in 2021 her legacy lives on with the creation of the Elsie and Dieter Gerdes Scholarship.
Growing up in a farming family in northwestern B.C. in the 1930s and 1940s, Dr. Elsie Gerdes (nee Gildner) was determined to get an education and pursue a career. She accomplished that and, in the process, helped make education more accessible for future generations of northern British Columbian residents.
Elsie passed away in 2021, but her impact on UNBC lives on through the work she did to help establish the University and her legacy gift that is funding scholarships for future learners.
“Elsie wanted to make it easier for young people in the north to get an education,” Elsie’s sister Norma Shelley recalled at a memorial tea held in Elsie’s honour in the Founders Lounge at the Prince George campus in July 2023.
In the late 1980s, Elsie’s day job was a managerial position in healthcare, but she and her husband Dieter were active in any number of community causes. One that was particularly important to Elsie was education and she joined the Interior University Society (IUS) which was campaigning for the creation of a university in the north, for the north.
“I remember she brought me here before the University was built, it was just brush,” Norma recalled. “But Elsie thought it was a great spot overlooking the city.”
Elsie went on to chair the IUS from 1987 to 1989, and one year later the UNBC Act was passed and a University was born.
“She was a powerhouse. She accomplished so much in her life. She was an agent of change,” Elsie’s niece Megan Smaha said. “Whenever she hit a roadblock, she would overcome it with tenacity.”
But her support for UNBC did not end there.
Shortly after UNBC was created, the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire agreed to raise funds to support student scholarships at UNBC. Together they raised $50,000 for the University and they named one of the awards the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire Elsie Gerdes Bursary for Nursing. It has been supporting students since it was endowed in 1992.
Now, thanks to a generous bequest from Elsie, the Elsie and Dieter Gerdes Scholarship will soon support four deserving students every year.
“She kept telling me, ‘you know that I’m giving all my money to the University,’ ” Norma chuckled, recalling conversations with her sister before her passing.
Elsie spent her early years in Copper City. In 1940, the Gildner family packed up and moved everything, including Nellie their beloved dairy cow, to a farm near Hazelton.
“Our father rented a box car, and moved us lock, stock and barrel to Hazelton,” Norma recalled. “We lived the box car for a week before moving to the farm.”
The family farm Elsie grew up on was near the hospital. As a child she would spend time there taking in what it would take to become a health care professional herself. Elsie graduated high school at 16 and spent two years working at the hospital before she was old enough to attend the Royal Jubilee Hospital School of Nursing in Victoria. Her nursing career eventually took her to Prince George, a community she would call home for more than three decades.
Elsie’s passion for education was a thread that ran through her life. Twice as an adult she returned to university to further her studies, first to acquire a Public Health Diploma from the University of British Columbia and later to earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from UBC. The later degree helped vault her into a management role.
“She broke through all the cultural and societal barriers that existed for women at the time,” Megan said.
Norma, went to high school in Prince Rupert, where she crossed paths with John MacDonald, who would go on to become an engineer, high tech entrepreneur and UNBC Chancellor. She then went on to follow her sister into the nursing profession.
Both Elsie and Norma credited Polly Sargent with opening their eyes to the possibility of what an education could bring. Polly, who was invested into the Order of Canada for her work with Indigenous communities in Hazelton, was a generation older than the Gildner girls. Elsie would babysit for the Sargent family, and it was during those encounters where the seed of pursuing post-secondary education was planted.
Elsie and Deiter moved away from Prince George shortly after UNBC was founded. They settled near Armstrong, where Elsie found her next career as a senior’s advocate. She served as the president of the BC Old Age Pensioners’ Organization and sat on the Premier’s Council on Aging and Seniors’ Issues where she championed the creation of the provincial Seniors Advocate.
Yet, despite the distance, Elsie remained connected to UNBC.
One of the most memorable return trips to campus came in 2004, 10 years after the Prince George campus opened. Elsie and nine other founders received honorary degrees.
“I was there when she received the honorary degree, she was just so proud of herself,” Norma said.
Megan remembers how special it was to attend the UNBC Convocation in 2010 when Elsie’s grandniece Sarah Gyorfi graduated with, you guessed it, a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. Making the day even more special, none other than UNBC Chancellor John MacDonald conferred the degree.
From being part of the early discussions about the need for a University in the north, to watching her family members cross the stage at Convocation, UNBC held a special place in Elsie’s heart. Now, generations of future students will benefit from her generosity.