Sally Aitken R.I.P.

Written by  //  August 3, 2011  //  Absent Friends, Peter Trent, Westmount  //  1 Comment

Sarah Aitken remembered as fearless Montreal activist and volunteer
MONTREAL – Fearless, stubborn, a community sparkplug with a remarkable knack for pinning down the right people to pitch in, Sarah (Sally) Aitken knew how to get things done.
The longtime local volunteer and activist passed away Sunday afternoon, “very peacefully and surrounded by her family,” a family member said.
With Aitken’s death, at age 73, “a little piece of Westmount is gone,” reflected Peter Trent, that city’s mayor.
“If someone had a problem, Sally knew precisely where to go and what thread to pull – and she did it with impunity.
“She would call anybody up. She would ask anybody to do anything,” Trent added.
Aitken “could cajole even better when she had a dram of Scotch in her hands.
“You just didn’t turn Sally down. And this is why she got so many people to get involved in this community.
“She was good at creating a tugging on your conscience. The decency and kindness just shone through her. And she proved, in effect, that this could win over cynicism and callousness.”
Over decades, Aitken’s volunteerism and environmental activism enlisted many.
Trent was first drawn into her web of civic action 30 years ago – he used the term “hooked.”
It was a network Aitken extended well beyond her home turf.
Seeds that she helped plant, most visibly in Westmount but also across the Montreal region and sometimes further afield, blossomed over time into a legacy that includes recycling, composting, pesticide controls and access rights for the physically disabled.
A longtime antiwar activist, Aitken received the YMCA of Greater Montreal Community Peace Medal in 2000 and was a recipient of Quebec’s Mérite Municipal award for community service.
“Sally was always bringing questions that had to be heard out into the open – that people didn’t want to think about or deal with,” said Joan Rothman, friend, longtime cohort and a Westmount city-council member with her from 1983 to 1991.
An energetic networker powered by a passion for action, Aitken “always had her ear to the ground,” Trent said.
She freely shared, orchestrated and interconnected among her broad circles of contacts – working as a catalyst, whether at meetings, on the phone, penning personal notes or, in more recent years, sending succinct emails.
She was “persistent … like a boxer – but with velvet gloves,” said Patricia Dumais, secretary of the Westmount Municipal Association, where Aitken was president in 1980-81 and Volunteer of the Year in 2000.
“I never got an aggressive feeling from her,” Dumais added. “She’d always look at you and smile. It was very difficult to say ‘No’ to her. Ever.”
Maureen Kiely recalled that Aitken “would reach out very humbly, very gently. There were no airs to Sally, ever.”
“Sally was involved in everything,” Kiely added. “When Sally saw a need, that’s when she responded. It was just empathy…. She had such a nice way about her, but very definitely principled.
“A genuinely kind person … she worked very quietly, very diligently, and just tried to help people. Period.”
Aitken, Trent noted, was blessed with “a wonderful strategic ability” – she had “this uncanny ability to read people, to understand people and figure out which person would be the best to call to get something done.”
Often, he added, “it was not obvious what was going on.
“But after it was done, you would realize that she was behind some of these things.”
Access for persons with physical disabilities was particularly close to her heart
“She really fought, in the days when nobody fought for handicapped accessibility,” Kiely said.
“She was the one who brought an awareness of handicapped accessibility into Westmount,” notably with an epic battle to install an elevator at its City Hall.
Ultimately, she succeeded.
Aitken also worked on a much broader scale, for instance pushing hard to ensure reserved parking for the disabled would be adopted across the Montreal region.
Aitken never let an early childhood bout with polio – which confined her to hospital for 30 months from the age of 4 and left her in a leg brace for life – block her way or cramp her consensus-building style.
“She bore this handicap with uncomplaining grace,” Trent said.
“It’s unbelievable how much pain she must have gone through. But she was always smiling, always cheerful.”
Asked about that recently, after she had been found to have a malignant brain tumour, Aitken told the Westmount Independent newspaper: “I thought that surviving polio protected me from everything.
“I always did what I thought what right,” Aitken said:
“I usually achieved my goals.”
A big part of her life was her work with the Polio Quebec Association and the Constance-Lethbridge Rehabilitation Centre and its charitable foundation.
She also co-edited two books, l’Histoire vécue de la Polio au Québec and Walking Fingers: The Story of Polio and Those who Lived With It.
Aitken’s array of activism included nurturing the launches of a local Neighbourhood Watch and the Seniors of Westmount Action Group.
“She was instrumental in founding the Healthy City Project” in Westmount 20 years ago, Jenny Patton said.
“It never would have happened if not for her,” added Patton, president for 15 years of the policy-advisory and public-education group – which battled 12 years for the introduction of door-to-door compost collection.
“She was never technical. She was always thinking community,” Patton said. “She went through life calmly, effectively.
“She prided herself in having the biggest address book in the world” – and was always ready to pull it out/ “When we were looking for compost ambassadors, Sally came up with 65 names in 20 minutes.
“She was very good at letting other people do the work…. You never felt nudged. She’d remind you: ‘Weren’t we going to do something about this?’
“Very effective.”
“She was a character, you know,” Patton said. “Soft-spoken, not a huge amount of words.
“But what she said was effective…. She always had projects going. She got out and about. She just never stopped.”
Born Sarah Drysdale, Aitken spent most of her early years in Outremont, St. Sauveur and Beaurepaire Village, now part of Beaconsfield.
She is survived by Allan Aitken, with whom she celebrated 48 years of marriage July 6.
“Sally always gave him credit,” Kiely said. “Basically, she wouldn’t have been able to do it without his support.”
She also leaves sons Ian and Jamie and daughter Jennifer; their spouses; eight grandchildren; her brother, Bill Drysdale; and sisters-in-law Sarah Stevenson and Jane Aitken.
A celebration of her life is planned for Wednesday, Sept. 7, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at Victoria Hall in Westmount.

Sally Aitken was an unstoppable force
By Marilynn Vanderstaay
An appreciation
Westmount lost a true community hero this week with the passing of Sally Aitken.
(Westmount Examiner) “Fearless, stubborn, (and) a community sparkplug” are some of the words used to describe Sally in her Gazette obituary this week. Those words pretty much sum up the life and accomplishments of Westmount’s foremost social activist and doer.
The words I will add to that are courageous, relentless, unstoppable and, most importantly, friend.
Sarah (Sally) Drysdale Aitken passed away peacefully, surrounded by her family, on Sunday afternoon, July 31 in her home on Ste. Catherine Street, after a long battle with cancer. She was 73.
I did not meet Sally until the late 1990s, when I returned to Westmount and began writing for the Examiner. Because we shared physical challenges in common, or because we saw in each other the same commitment to making things happen in community, it was instant mashed potatoes. We would spend the next decade sharing ideas, anecdotes, and projects over lunches of soup and salad, cheese and her husband Allan’s homemade bread, or Copoli burgers. There were birthday breakfasts at Copoli she organized for swimming pals and other friends, vernissages and launches for friends, and sadly, funerals.
Sally had a way of making her friends your friends, and all who had the privilege to get to know Sally were soon entangled in her world of her sharing her friends and us sharing ours. Many of the people in my database and in my life are there because Sally introduced me to them.
Sally embodied friendship and community; it was from that point she lived. Her home saw a steady stream of people from across the country and around the world, and from different times in her life, dropping in to spend a few days with the Aitkens before heading off to their destination. Sally was a friend for life.
Refused to be “handicapped”
Many of her friends and associates marveled at Sally’s courage, especially as she tackled an outdoor staircase in a frozen winter, fearlessly climbing up one step at a time, or pulling herself out of her car in the heat of summer, encumbered by the ever-present leg brace. Or when she struggled to get into the swimming pool, keeping herself afloat with a flutter board, and getting up and down the stairs. For Sally, however, that was not being courageous. It was just how she had learned to operate when, at just four years old, polio had forced her into that leg brace and her parents – wisely knowing she would have to learn to live in the real world – didn’t make it easy for her by fortifying her with banisters.
I was in awe, however, of her courage and fearlessness that allowed her, in spite of her physical challenges, until literally the last months, approach anyone, no matter what their title or if they were panhandling on the street. She took on Montreal city hall and beyond. Reserved parking for the handicapped across the Montreal region is now a given, but was pushed for by Sally. She also took on Westmount city hall and was a city councillor from 1983 to 1991. Under her watch, subsidized housing in Westmount and St. Margaret’s senior residence were built.
But Sally was ruled by empathy that overrode protocol. I don’t think she was intimidated by anyone or anything. And almost any organization, event or institution in Westmount has Sally’s footprint on it somewhere.
Sally was also relentless. Once she had an idea in her head, or worse you shared an idea with her, she would not let it go until it was accomplished. And she was an idea person, always thinking outside the box, and recruiting others to help make it happen.
And she was relentless in her own life. “In spite of her physical frailties she was up at 6 a.m. to go swimming,” said friend Nancy Ship, who met Sally 20 years ago at the Westmount pool.
Honoured for community service
Always humble, Sally was surprised when organizations like the Westmount Municipal Association bestowed on her its Volunteer Citizen of the Year Award in 2000, or when the Business Professional Women of Montreal awarded her their Woman of the Year award a few years later. For Sally, she was just doing what came naturally, what she was supposed to do, what she saw needed to be done. And she did it. Sally finally agreed to the BPW award when she realized that by hearing what she had accomplished younger women would be inspired to make things happen in their communities.
And at the end of it all, Sally truly was unstoppable. Although the ongoing foe cancer thought it had finally stopped her, ultimately Sally triumphed over it. After the last diagnosis she did not give up, she fought hard and did not leave until she knew in her heart of hearts that those she loved, the ones she lived for, were prepared, ready and at peace with her leaving and then she just slipped away peacefully.
Sally is survived by her husband of 48 years, Allan Aitken, sons Ian and Jamie, and daughter Jennifer, their spouses, eight grandchildren, her brother Bill Drysdale and sisters-in-law Sarah Stevenson and Jane Aitken – and her friends and associates too numerous to mention.
We were good friends. We were confidants. I am truly blessed to have known her.

‘A little piece of Westmount is gone’: Trent

Sally Aitken a lifelong catalyst for peace, environment and accessibility

(Montreal Gazette) Fearless, stubborn, a community sparkplug with a remarkable knack for pinning down the right people to pitch in, Sarah (Sally) Aitken knew how to get things done.
The longtime local volunteer and activist passed away Sunday afternoon “very peacefully and surrounded by her family,” a family member said.
With Aitken’s death at 73, “a little piece of Westmount is gone,” Peter Trent, that city’s mayor, reflected.
“If someone had a problem, Sally knew precisely where to go and what thread to pull – and she did it with impunity,” Trent said.
“She would call anybody up. She would ask anybody to do anything.”
Aitken “could cajole even better when she had a dram of Scotch in her hands,” he added.
“You just didn’t turn Sally down. And this is why she got so many people to get involved in this community.
“She was good at creating a tugging on your conscience. The decency and kindness just shone through her. And she proved, in effect, that this could win over cynicism and callousness.”
Over decades, her volunteerism and environmental activism enlisted many. Trent was first drawn into Aitken’s web of civic action 30 years ago – he used the term “hooked.”
It was a network she extended well beyond her home turf.
Seeds that Aitken helped plant, most visibly in Westmount but also across the Montreal region and sometimes farther afield, blossomed over time into a legacy that includes recycling, composting, pesticide controls and access rights for the physically disabled.
A longtime antiwar activist, Aitken received the YMCA of Greater Montreal Community Peace Medal in 2000 and was a recipient of Quebec’s Mérite Municipal award for community service.
“Sally was always bringing questions that had to be heard out into the open – that people didn’t want to think about or deal with,” said Joan Rothman, a friend, longtime cohort and a Westmount city council member with her from 1983 to 1991.
An energetic networker powered by a passion for action, Aitken “always had her ear to the ground,” Trent said.
She freely shared, orchestrated and interconnected among her broad circles of contacts – working as a catalyst, whether at meetings, on the phone, penning personal notes or, in more recent years, sending succinct emails.
She was “persistent … like a boxer – but with velvet gloves,” said Patricia Dumais, secretary of the Westmount Municipal Association, where Aitken was president in 1980-81 and Volunteer of the Year in 2000.
“I never got an aggressive feeling from her,” Dumais added. “She’d always look at you and smile. It was very difficult to say ‘No’ to her. Ever.”
Maureen Kiely recalled that Aitken “would reach out very humbly, very gently. There were no airs to Sally, ever.”
“Sally was involved in everything,” Kiely added. “When Sally saw a need, that’s when she responded. It was just empathy. … She had such a nice way about her, but very definitely principled.”
“A genuinely kind person … she worked very quietly, very diligently, and just tried to help people. Period.”
Aitken, Trent noted, was blessed with “a wonderful strategic ability … this uncanny ability to read people, to understand people and figure out which person would be the best to call to get something done.”
Often, he added, “it was not obvious what was going on.
“But after it was done, you would realize that she was behind some of these things.”
Access for persons with physical disabilities was particularly close to her heart.
“She really fought, in the days when nobody fought for handicapped accessibility,” Kiely said.
“She was the one who brought an awareness of handicapped accessibility into Westmount,” notably with an epic battle to install an elevator at its city hall. Ultimately, she succeeded.
Aitken also worked on a much broader scale, for instance pushing hard to ensure reserved parking for the handicapped would be adopted across the Montreal region.
Aitken never let an early childhood bout with polio – which confined her to hospital at age 4 for 30 months, leaving her in a leg brace for life – block her way or cramp her consensus-building style.
“She bore this handicap with uncomplaining grace,” said Trent.
“It’s unbelievable how much pain she must have gone through. But she was always smiling, always cheerful.”
Asked about that recently, after she had been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour, Aitken told the Westmount Independent newspaper: “I thought that surviving polio protected me from everything.”
“I always did what I thought was right,” Aitken said. “I usually achieved my goals.”
A big part of her life was her work with the Polio Quebec Association and the Constance-Lethbridge Rehabilitation Centre and its charitable foundation.
She also co-edited two books, l’Histoire vécue de la Polio au Québec and Walking Fingers: The Story of Polio and Those who Lived With It.
Aitken’s array of activism included nurturing the launches of a local Neighbourhood Watch and the Seniors of Westmount Action Group. “She was instrumental in founding the Healthy City Project” in Westmount 20 years ago, said Jenny Patton.
Born Sarah Drysdale, Aitken spent most of her early years in Outremont, St. Sauveur and Beaurepaire Village, now part of Beaconsfield.
She is survived by Allan Aitken, with whom she celebrated 48 years of marriage July 6. “Sally always gave him credit,” Kiely said: “Basically, she wouldn’t have been able to do it without his support.”
She also leaves sons Ian and Jamie and daughter Jennifer; their spouses; eight grandchildren; her brother, Bill Drysdale; and sisters-in-law Sarah Stevenson and Jane Aitken.

One Comment on "Sally Aitken R.I.P."

  1. Nancy Ship September 8, 2011 at 10:13 am · Reply

    I attended the late afternoon “celebration” of Sally Aitken’s life at Victoria hall–2 hours of tribute in the most tasteful,elegant and eloquent way of marking the passing of a good friend and awe-inspiring woman.Although I spent a lot of time in the past 10-15 years with Sally, she was so non-boastful ,I learned things about her yesterday that I never knew. Thank-you Allan and family for the opportunity ! Fondly, Nancy &Harold

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