Dorothy Elizabeth Smith
On Saturday, March 23, 2019, Dorothy Elizabeth Smith (née Matson) passed away in Whitehorse with her daughter Marilyn at her side. Dorothy had just celebrated her 99th birthday two weeks earlier at her home with family and friends.
Dorothy was born on March 9, 1920, in Atlin, B.C. to Selma and Axel Nelson, who were originally from Sweden. Her mother contracted the Spanish flu and died within a few days of Dorothy’s birth. Margaret and Peter Matson, family friends also from Sweden, adopted Dorothy as a baby. She spent her childhood at Ruby Creek, on a mining outfit past the town of Discovery in the Atlin goldfields. Dorothy attended school in Atlin but did not continue past Grade 8 because that would have meant attending a boarding school down south. Instead, Dorothy spent her time at Ruby Creek helping her mother, a trained baker, cook for the miners. From an early age, Dorothy learned to thrive in her solitude, drawing on her inner resources to enjoy a variety of activities. She enjoyed reading, fishing, boating, hiking, cross-country skiing and gathering mushrooms and berries. Later, she participated fully in Atlin’s social scene, attending dances and playing cards — she was crowned Dominion Day Queen at the 1940 July the First celebration. Her escort was the newly arrived butcher and Schultz’s store employee, Jim Smith. Jim and Dorothy were married on October 28, 1942. The wedding had to be postponed because they were both felled by stomach flu. They would later say that neither of them had ever gotten that sick since.
The Smiths set up house in a robin’s egg blue home in town. Every day before work, Jim would walk down to the lake with a yoke and carry back two pails of water to the house. Dorothy worked at the Sands Dry Goods store. They loved their time in Atlin. They told many stories about all the adventures they had with friends around Atlin’s spectacular scenery, such as borrowing the Aurora from Jim’s employer for overnight fishing excursions. But, as Jim would say, “You can’t eat the scenery,” so with heavy hearts they relocated to Whitehorse in 1947 to live in a two-room shack so Jim could take up his new position at Tourist Services on the outskirts of town. He was in charge of a motel, restaurant, cocktail lounge and grocery store. He was well-liked and hardworking, but the job demanded long hours.
Once again Dorothy had to draw on her resilience to forge a new life in dusty, isolated Whitehorse, in its pre-capital state. Soon, Marilyn was born. During the winter the baby had to play on the bed as the floor was too cold. In the summer they painted the shack white, but with so many blackflies swarming around and getting into the paint, it turned out grey. With another child on the way (Eric), Jim, after a long shift at the store, would head to a lot they had purchased on Cook Street and, board by board, build a new house for the family. Dorothy taught herself to drive on the back roads along the clay cliffs, made new friends and eventually came to love Whitehorse.
Dorothy faced another major challenge when Jim was appointed Commissioner of the Yukon Territory in 1966, a position he held for ten years. Dorothy was private and shy, yet she had to be on hand to host the annual Commissioner’s Levee in the Commissioner’s residence, hatted and gloved to meet dignitaries and attend many public functions. She was gracious, understated, poised and elegant in this role and surprised herself by enjoying meeting such diverse and august company.
Dorothy distinguished herself as an exemplary needle artist, quilter, knitter, and recently, colouring book artist. She had great technical talents and was very prolific; many admirers marvelled at her thoughtful use of colour and textures in her work. She seemed always to have a project in her lap, and many of her cherished works are on display at the homes of friends and family. Of particular note are her Hardanger creations: painstakingly perfect embroidery and cutouts on white linen, harkening to her Nordic roots. She was an adventurous, intuitive artist and loved learning new techniques and using newly invented materials. Well into her 90s Dorothy went into high production, knitting socks for her grandsons and greatgrandchildren when she discovered a certain kind of multi-coloured yarn. She did concede that Marilyn had to do the toes. Dorothy loved exploring handicrafts with others and volunteered at Macaulay Lodge quilting with residents, even though she was older than many of them.
Although Dorothy was adventurous in many ways and loved her time travelling and meeting dignitaries from all over the world, she revelled in the everyday. She liked the four seasons, gardening, picking berries, cooking meals and baking. Dorothy regularly attended duplicate bridge, and together with her partner amassed a huge collection of cut crystal drinking glasses, which were handed out as prizes. She and Jim had an ever-regenerating group of friends, many who visited them in their tidy home on Alsek Road. They loved their grandchildren and were able to carve out time to forge close relationships with them. When their grandsons attended Jeckell Junior High, every Thursday Dorothy would pick them up for lunch and they would feast on Jim’s pancakes (his only culinary specialty) before returning to school.
Throughout Dorothy’s life, whenever she visited Atlin, on arriving and seeing the mountains, her whole demeanour would change, and she would become completely at ease. She was deeply religious but never proselytized. It seems that her spirituality was connected to the natural world, and to a profound belief in God.
Two years ago, not long after Jim’s passing, Dorothy moved into Macaulay Lodge and more recently to the Whistle Bend Continuing Care Facility. She made the best of what must have been a difficult transition, quickly adapting and revelling in her new life. She shared with everyone how lucky she was to see the mountains from her room.
Dorothy was preceded in death by Jim, her husband of 74 years, and their infant son William (1951); parents George and Selma Nelson; adoptive parents Margaret and Pete Matson; brother George Nelson; sister-in-law Bessy Nelson and brother Ted Matson. She is survived by her daughter Marilyn and her son Eric, three grandsons, Alex, Michael (Hitoha) and Matthew (Serah) and great-grandchildren Noel, Lennan, Emma and Stella, sister-in-law Helen Matson, nieces Shirley Santos Pedro, Rika Compton and nephews Thor and Mark Matson. The family is planning a memorial to take place in Whitehorse in early August.
If you wish, please make a donation in Dorothy’s name to House 6 Resident Council, Whistlebend Place, 90 Olive May Way, Whitehorse, Yukon Y1A 0R4. Your gift will be used to purchase craft supplies for residents.