Marlene Dietrich: an active life helping others
The year 2017 marks the 15th anniversary of Abbeyfield Port Alberni, a milestone in the lives of many seniors of the Valley.
Throughout this year, The Alberni Valley News’ Seniors column will be conducting interviews with members of the Abbeyfield community celebrating this memorable date.
The first person notably connected to this local organization is Marlene Dietrich, president of the Abbeyfield House Alberni Valley Society for the past 11 years, and who, without a doubt, is the most prominent figure of the seniors’ home. She, along with vice-president Doreen Bessette, have been involved in the society’s board the longest.
Dietrich joined the board of directors a few months before the arrival of the first 18 residents to their new home, when she and her husband Phil helped with the renovations. “Back then, Terry Whyte, the founder of Abbeyfield in our community, and whom I had known for several years, approached me to see if I wanted to join the board and work with him and others. I did, and so did my daughter Jaci Garcia,” Dietrich said.
Since that day, Dietrich has been actively involved in the society by volunteering her time, practically, in every area of the operation. From working untiringly as a board member, early on as the secretary, to dealing with making possible many physical changes to the building, like painting walls and ceilings, getting supplies and much more.
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At the same time Dietrich works closely with residents at their meetings and attends regular sessions to find out their needs, as well as taking part in social events, anniversaries, birthdays, calendar celebrations and fundraising activities.
Dietrich was born in Winnipeg, MB in 1936. Her mother, Jane Emily (Neely) Johnston, died in 1942 at the age of 27, her father John in 1980 and her only sibling, Jack Johnston, in 2001. She and Jack lived with their grandmother in Stonewall, MB until they moved to Port Alberni with their father and stepmother in 1947.
In 1953, Marlene and Pat Phillips were married and had four children; two girls and two boys. They also parented four foster children. During that time she went to night school and took correspondence courses to complete her university entrance qualifications, graduating one year after her eldest daughter. At one time in their Cherry Creek home there was five teenagers who were four years apart in age, two elementary school children and two brothers-in-law as boarders. “Bread making day meant a 25-pound bag of flour for 30 loaves of bread every week,” Dietrich said.
The family farm had a large garden and they raised three calves a year for beef.
“The experiment of raising two pigs was not popular when it came time for the boys to round them up when they escaped from their pen,” Dietrich recalls. There are many fruit trees on the property, so there also was lots of canning and preserving, and some wine making.
Marlene later divorced in 1976, purchasing the Phillips’ Cherry Creek family home that had been built in 1912.
She married Phil Dietrich in 1979, rounding out her family with three step children. She and Phil still live on the property today, welcoming their extended family to many special occasions.
During her working life, and while raising a family, she worked as a secretary/bookkeeper for a finance company, a service station, and a logging company. In 1988 she became assistant to the member of the legislative assembly and later executive assistant to the minister of Small Business, Tourism and Culture, retiring in 2001.
When asked about the reasons for her long time service at Abbeyfield, without hesitation Dietrich states, “I truly believe in the concept of the Abbeyfield movement that encourages seniors to live a normal and independent life, different from the concept of an institution. They feel a sense of ownership and have the freedom to come and go as they please. They are encouraged to have an input into the operational aspects of the organization that makes it their home.”
Eight years ago, Marlene Dietrich was nominated for the Port Alberni Citizen of the Year award by the residents of Abbeyfield, reflecting their sentiment on her continuous contribution to the seniors living in the home.
Today, this sentiment still prevails as the residents enjoy their life in a safe and accommodating environment.
Abbeyfield Port Alberni is the largest Abbeyfield home in Canada and for the past 15 years has been operating at full capacity. Applications for residence are available.