Genealogy Stories · Womens History

An extraordinary, ordinary life: Dorothy Gibson

For my final post for Women’s History Month, I would like to tell you Dorothy’s story. If you ask Dorothy, she would say she’s had an ordinary life. I’d like to convince you otherwise.

Dorothy Gibson née Breher is 5’7″, with vivid blue eyes, sharp intelligence, and a crystal-clear memory. She was born in Saskatoon in 1932 and turned 88 a short while ago. I first met Dorothy at the Nutana Legion in April, 2018, when I was doing research on the story of three Canadian/Scottish brothers who fought at Vimy Ridge in WWI. Her expertise with WWI badges helped me understand troop movements, but it was her own story that caught my attention.

The early years: 1932-1950

Dorothy Gibson née Breher was born in Saskatoon in March, 1932, during the Great Depression.

She is the 2nd child of six born to Ferdinand Leonard “Fred” Breher and Bertha Breher née Klebaum. The family farm was located roughly where the Bank of Montreal branch is now, at 8th and Preston, but by the time Dorothy came on the scene, they had moved to Osler & McKinnon, where the streets were paved in cinder, and the two-bedroom house had a dining room and front room. The bathroom was a privy out the back, the kitchen had an ice box that needed regular ice deliveries to keep things cold, and the basement had a dirt floor. It was a house much like any other house in Saskatoon in the dirty 30s.

The family worked hard to make ends meet, but there was no work to be found. They lost the truck. Dorothy remembers standing in line for what was then called “relief” and is now called “welfare.” These were long, tough years.

Dorothy remembers one happy story from this time.

My brother found a dollar bill. In our place we had horse drawn wagons to bring fruit, ice, and milk, so when the fruit wagon stopped, ma bought us each a banana and had some left over [from the dollar]. A banana! Nowadays you think nothing of them, but then…

Interview with Dorothy Gibson, 27 Feb 2020. Museum of Military Artifacts, Saskatoon, SK.

Watching her face, you can still see the joy of this never-forgotten treat.

Dorothy attended elementary at Albert School, then City Park Collegiate, then finished her grade 12 at Nutana Collegiate.

The war years: 1939-1945

Dorothy was 7 years old when WWII began.

Her father, fluent in German, enlisted in the Canadian Army and was posted to the detachments at Camp Borden, ON and then Dundurn, SK. This was a bittersweet time for the Breher family. On the upside, Fred was immediately able to buy a washing machine for his family, thus eliminating the back breaking labour of washing laundry by hand. And in the army, Fred, who could “fix a truck with a piece of wire,” found appreciation and plenty of work in the army engineering corps.

On the downside, Bertha was left alone to cope with raising the family. She was not the only one. With their men at war, women joined card clubs to socialize, and neighbours supported neighbours. Everyone, everyone, listened to the radio. Dorothy said, “There was a sadness. At first, the war didn’t go well. That’s what people focused on. War was with us 24 hours a day. Your son, or father, or brother, you didn’t know where they were. All the time, your mind was about the war.”

There were the night raid drills: every house covered its windows with sheets and blankets, so when the blackout announcements came over the radio, there was not a light to be seen in the entire city.

There were the army drills. The soldiers at Camp Dundurn practiced their manoeuvres over the University Bridge. Dorothy said, “We used to watch them at the end of the block.”

University Bridge, Saskatoon
University Bridge, Saskatoon. 5 Mar 2020. © 2020 Past Presence. Photo credit: Linda Yip. All rights reserved.

As a member of the Commonwealth, Canada marshalled every resource in support of Great Britain. In order to send as much as possible, Canadians were rationed. You couldn’t buy sugar, gasoline, or meat without coupons. In Saskatoon in March, 1942, sugar and gasoline were rationed. By April, 1943, meat was rationed at two pounds per week per person. By July, 1945, the meat ration was down another third, to 1.33 lbs. (Interestingly, poultry was not considered “meat” and was not included in the ration.)

CGIT button
Canadian Girls in Training Button, 1930s. From Wikipedia Commons. Anne Delong / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Dorothy joined the Canadian Girls in Training to knit squares which were made into blankets for shipment to Britain.

Boy Cubs and Scouts went door to door collecting pots, pans, metal and wire to be melted down for shells, tanks and planes. At Hallowe’en, kids went door to door carrying cans for change and shouting, “Milk for Britain.”

As well, there was prejudice. Dorothy said, “If you were German or Japanese, you were teased.” She defended herself, saying, “My father is in the Canadian Army.”

“That shut them up,” she said.

But being the “wrong” nationality had its consequences. Dorothy never learned to speak German. “It wasn’t the right time,” she said.

Dorothy grew up in WWII. She learned to be resilient, resourceful, and to defend herself. These skills would be essential in her professional life.

Photography

Dorothy’s face lights up when she talks about her lifelong love of photography.

Photo of Dorothy Gibson in her darkroom
Dorothy in her darkroom. About late 1950s/early 1960s. © 2020. Used with permission. From the archives of Dorothy Gibson. All rights reserved.

Due to macular degeneration, she now needs help identifying photos, but while the images may be blurry for her to see, they are vivid in her mind’s eye. I sat down with her and her daughter, Diane, to go through a box of photos. “Which one is that one you’re holding?” Dorothy asked.

“A boy on a bike in front of a house,” I said. And that’s all she needed – Dorothy would tell me the rest: the house, the boy, the bike, and the story behind the photo.

As soon as she could afford it, Dorothy bought a Nikon. It took a bit of convincing, but she persuaded her brother and brother-in-law to go in with her, and together the three of them bought all the necessities for a fully operational black & white darkroom which they built in the space under the stairs at Dorothy’s house.

Diane remembered watching images appear in the developer trays while perched on the ledge. “It was magical,” said Diane.

In her spare time, Dorothy volunteered at a local photography studio. She approached the owner and offered a trade, “Would you teach me photography?” Dorothy said to him, “I’ll wash your floor in return, or do anything you want me to do.”

“That was bold of you,” I said.

“I had to,” she said, “I wanted to learn.”

The printing industry: 1951-1995

 And now we come to the part of Dorothy’s story that really caught my attention: Dorothy was a commercial printer from 1951-1995. I was a commercial printer from 1986-1999. She saw the beginning of lithography and I saw the roots of its ending. Despite the 35-year gap, our stories had striking similarities.

In lithographic printing, there are 6 main components:

  1. Paste-up and ruling, where a page is laid out, borders lined, and artwork cut in;
  2. Process Camera, where art is shot to the right size, photos are rendered into tiny dots, and full pages are turned into negatives;
  3. Litho film stripping, where the negatives are assembled into page layouts and each colour is given its own layer;
  4. Plate-making, where the films are burned to plate;
  5. Press, where the plates are attached to an offset press, ink is applied, and the printing is done; and
  6. Bindery, where the printed products are finished, glued, stitched, and/or assembled.

To work in lithography, you took a 5-year apprenticeship. Dorothy took two. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Journeyman Process Camera Operator

During her career, Dorothy worked at Midwest Litho, Modern Press, Mercury Printing, and McKenzie Ray Tickets.

She began, as many do, in the Bindery department, where the key skills are speed and coordination. Think stuffing envelopes, and you have the gist of it. It was grunt work, but it was honourable grunt work. Dorothy worked hard and kept her eyes open for opportunities to learn. Eventually she learned Pasteup and set her sights on the Graphic Process Camera department, or “camera” for short. She took her apprenticeship in camera. It was a natural fit – Dorothy spent her free time learning darkroom and photography at home, and camera on the job.

“I went to every seminar,” she said, “I wanted to be the best I could be at my job.”

Photo of a darkroom camera
Darkroom camera, 1985. Accessed 29 Mar 2020 on Wikipedia Commons. Robert Couse-Baker from Sacramento, California / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0). Available at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Newspaper_darkroom_circa_1985_(4220296875).jpg.
Process camera printing industry
Inside a process camera, 1990s. Accessed 29 Mar 2020 on Wikipedia Commons. GaryReggae / Public domain. Available at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ProcessCameraBack.jpg.

Journeyman Lithographic Film Stripper

I love this part: not content with her new journeyman camera operator status, Dorothy then set her sights on lithographic film stripping, or stripping as it was known. (Yes, we’ve all heard the jokes.) She was justifiably proud of herself when she completed her film stripping apprenticeship and added journeyman to her title. “If you had your 5 years’ stripping, it was a big deal,” Dorothy said, “You’d come up in the world.”

I still remember those days: big, dust-free rooms filled with rows of light tables, the tall stools, the slender Olfa knives, the goldenrod and the loupes, the men literally dressed in white coats. 

By the time she joined Mercury Litho, Dorothy could do every job in pre-press. She was the head of stripping. Dorothy said,

It was good I had camera – they only had one camera operator and so if the camera person became sick, I could go in and do that as well. That’s what I loved: paste-up, camera, stripping. There were lots of times they’d say, look, would you finish paste up and ruling that brochure, shoot it, strip it, make a plate, and they would print it.

Interview with Dorothy Gibson, 4 Mar 2020. Residence of Dorothy Gibson, Saskatoon, SK.

Sexism in the workplace

Not everyone was supportive. There were bullies. Throughout her career, Dorothy heard it all. (I heard those words too. The printing industry was often a harsh place to be a woman. )

“I would never work under a woman,” or

If you don’t like it here, why don’t you just leave?

Interview with Dorothy Gibson, 27 Feb 2020. Museum of Military Artifacts, Saskatoon, SK.

There was the time the head of the stripping department was demonstrating advanced techniques in shrinks and spreads (the process for overlaying one colour on top of another so there is no white line where the colours meet).

Dorothy said,

He did one, saying “this’ll work, but..” he couldn’t figure out the other one. Well, I figured you just reversed the process, and quickly solved the problem. I took my answer up to him and said, “This is the way you do it.” It took a while for him to speak to me. He didn’t like that – to do something he didn’t know quite how to do. I hit his ego. I learned very early on that you tried to make it like he thought of it.”

Interview with Dorothy Gibson, 27 Feb 2020. Museum of Military Artifacts, Saskatoon, SK.

I asked Dorothy how she had the guts to stand up to it all.

She said, “I come from a large family…you learn to look after yourself… you learn to hold your own with the boys.”

McKenzie Ray Tickets, Saskatoon

Tickets - McKenzie Ray
Dorothy’s collection of tickets from McKenzie Ray Tickets. © 2020. Photo Credit: Linda Yip. All rights reserved.

McKenzie Ray Tickets began in 1986 when Sheridan Abells and Graham Simpson left Mercury Graphics to form their own company. By 1990, McKenzie Ray had contracts to print tickets for events around the world: hockey’s Edmonton Oilers, NY Islanders, Calgary Flames; baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays, Texas Rangers, Minnesota Twins; tickets for NASCAR; boxing in Las Vegas; Expo 88 in Brisbane, Australia, and Knott’s Berry Farm.

How did a small Saskatoon firm win huge international contracts?

Let me explain something about the printing industry. It operates on ever-thinning margins. It’s a race against time, a balancing act between cost, precision and speed, and a single mistake that makes it through to the end means losing the profit on the entire job, because the entire job must be reprinted. A job as finicky as a concert ticket cannot be late, slipshod, or be anything less than perfect.

A big part of this perfection happens in the film stripping department. Dorothy worked as a senior litho film stripper at McKenzie Ray for 7 years until she retired in 1995. She remembered working on reams of tickets. I can see her there, her light table covered with layers of rubylith and clear film, her 4-colour logos organized around her, one piece for each colour of CMYK – printer-speak for the 4 colours cyan, magenta, yellow, and black – one hand on the film to steady it while the other hand trims material with a knife. There’s one logo for every ticket, 40 tickets to a sheet, 160 logos to cut in. And that’s before the text is cut in.

Thinking back to those days, Dorothy said, “I loved it. Loved the work. It was so satisfying.”

The end of lithographic printing

Dorothy worked in lithographic printing for 44 years. She never missed a year, working full-time before she was married, then part-time nights when the kids were small, then back to full-time again when her son Malcolm was nine. She put down her knife for the last time in 1995, retiring at the age of 63.

Olfa knife, commonly used in the printing industry
Olfa knife. We preferred these knives as they were lightweight and precise. And yes, we cut ourselves a lot. Accessed 29 Mar 2020 on Wikipedia Commons. Lucasbosch / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0). Available at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:OLFA_5019_SVR-2_9_mm_utility_knife_with_SAB_blade.svg.

I left the printing industry as we were introducing the machines that would make everything from paste-up to stripping redundant: computer-to-plate. Entire departments of prepress staff would be laid off in the next two years. It was 1999 – just 4 years after Dorothy retired.

How this was done

This is the first interview-style story I’ve ever attempted. My criteria were simple: I wanted someone senior, local, and with an intriguing story. Because of her work at the Saskatoon Museum of Military Artifacts, I knew Dorothy was a great choice. 

When I first asked Dorothy for her story, she demurred. “I’ve had a very ordinary life,” she said. Then we got to talking. All in all, Dorothy and I spent about 7.5 hours together. I could easily have spent more time with her.

Over the past weeks, I’ve been listening to the recordings and making notes. I wrote this story in one long sitting, then did a bit of research to fill in some details. Dorothy Gibson is 88 years old and can no longer read, but her memory is flawless.

Afterword

In this story, I’ve tried to highlight select chapters in Dorothy’s life: her childhood during the Great Depression, her experience as a child growing up in WWII, and her career as an accomplished printer. In doing so, I’ve left out big, important pieces: her family, marriage, and children. It’s not that these aren’t important – it’s more that as women, we are so often defined by relational roles – as wife, mother, and grandmother – that we can forget we are many other things.

As well, I was fascinated to learn about McKenzie Ray Tickets, and to handle the samples of Dorothy’s work, squirreled away in boxes in her basement. I had no idea. It’s a proud chapter in Saskatoon history.

I’d planned to write up Dorothy’s story immediately after our second interview on March 4, 2020. I’d planned to take a lot more photos of her work. I’d planned a third interview, and maybe a fourth. I planned a lot of things.

Then the coronavirus happened and the world changed.

Today is March 31, 2020. Everyone is socially isolating. Dorothy is well, living with her sister, and her family are dropping by to bring her groceries.

Thank yous

Thanks first and foremost to Dorothy Gibson, who trusted me with a wild idea. Also huge thanks to her family, Diane and Malcolm, for going along with it.

References

Busy printing company (13 Jan 1990). Saskatooon Star Phoenix classifieds. Accessed 29 Mar 2020 by Newspapers.com. McKenzie Ray Tickets advertises for a bindery worker.

Buying will be reduced (31 Mar 1942). Saskatoon Star Phoenix, page 10. Accessed 29 Mar 2020 by Newspapers.com. The federal government warns rationing may be coming if people can’t stop hoarding.

CGIT button from 1930s. From Wikipedia Commons. Anne Delong / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0). Available at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CGIT_button_from_1930s.jpg

Meat rationing (2 Apr 1943). Saskatoon Star Phoenix. Accessed 29 Mar 2020 by Newspapers.com. Canada rations meat at 2 lbs / household.

Newspaper darkroom circa 1985. Accessed 29 Mar 2020 on Wikipedia Commons. Robert Couse-Baker from Sacramento, California / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0). Available at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Newspaper_darkroom_circa_1985_(4220296875).jpg.

Olfa knife, commonly used in the printing industry. Accessed 29 Mar 2020 on Wikipedia Commons. Lucasbosch / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0). Available at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:OLFA_5019_SVR-2_9_mm_utility_knife_with_SAB_blade.svg.

Process Camera back. Accessed 29 Mar 2020 on Wikipedia Commons. GaryReggae / Public domain. Available at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ProcessCameraBack.jpg.

Printing firm ticketed for success (2 Apr 1990). Saskatoon Star Phoenix. Accessed 29 Mar 2020 by Newspapers.com. Business profile story re: McKenzie Ray Tickets.

Printing Company (5 Aug 1989). Saskatooon Star Phoenix classifieds. Accessed 29 Mar 2020 by Newspapers.com. McKenzie Ray Tickets advertises for a Production Coordinator.

Scanning around with Gene: Throwing away the pasteup books – CreativePro.com. Accessed 29 Mar 2020. I was unable to locate a copyright free image of film stripping but Gene’s excellent article here takes you through the entire lithographic process that Dorothy would have experienced.

Ticket printing business takes off (31 Oct 1992). Saskatooon Star Phoenix. Accessed 29 Mar 2020 by Newspapers.com. McKenzie Ray Tickets, now owned by Mercury Graphics, prints the new airline tickets for Delta.

Tuesdays, Fridays meatless days. (7 Jul 1945). Saskatoon Star Phoenix, page 1. Accessed 29 Mar 2020 by Newspapers.com. Story about meat rations changing to 1.33 lbs/per person per week.

8 thoughts on “An extraordinary, ordinary life: Dorothy Gibson

    1. Thank you – I very much appreciate your comment.
      I learned a valuable lesson during the making of this story. Trust is everything.

  1. Fascinating story! I love hearing about all of her accomplishments. And you’re right. With men, we will hear all about their accomplishments, and then maybe a small paragraph about their family. Anything written about women, seems to be all about their family with a small paragraph about their accomplishments. Thank you for sharing Dorothy with the rest of us!

    1. And thank you for your impressions!

      I think as genealogists we try hard to uncover the stories of our families but can end up uncovering only the stories of our men. It’s the men who have historically gone out to work, gotten elected, gotten reported in the news, and so on. Now I’m thinking back on the work for Womens History Month, I’m realizing unless we interview the women in our families, we risk losing their stories completely. We have only the stories ABOUT them, not the stories FROM them. This is definitely a story from Dorothy’s perspective.

  2. Linda – I loved Dorothy’s story. Women had to be strong in those days to make it in a man’s world, she was certainly a very strong woman! Interviewing her sounds like such a pleasure.

    1. Thank you! Yes, you’re right. It truly was a pleasure. I could have written a book about her.

  3. What an interesting career Dorothy had. You tell her story so well.
    My grandmother bought the company she worked for after the owner died, and she had to get a man partner to be the face of the company while she did most of the work. I learned much from her so when I started working and I was told I had to fill the water jug of the men’s boss each morning.. I said I don’t think so! It has nothing to do with my work! My boss agreed and it was taken out of the job description!

    1. Dianne, your tidbit had me visiting your site to read up on your grandmother, Sadie. What a woman. What courage. You’ve just inspired me to ask another local woman for her story. Thank you!

      And I love your story about refusing to play Aquarius. I hear you, sister.

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