After nearly three decades working for newspapers in the Alberni Valley, Sonja Drinkwater is going to retire.
Actually, she’s referring to it as “downsizing”: with a deep love for her community and the people in it, Drinkwater will continue to attend community events and celebrations for her Scene and Heard page that runs in each week’s Alberni Valley News, but she is retiring from fulltime work selling advertisements.
“I don’t want to quit everything, it would be too much of a shock to my system,” she said. “I’m going to miss my clients. They were more than clients, more like extended family.”
Drinkwater was born and raised in Port Alberni “to two amazing parents, Fred and Henny Drinkwater,” who she said taught her about faith and good work ethic.
She had several jobs before starting a career in the news industry. She worked for the BC Liquor Store, picked and sold strawberries at Naesgaard’s Farm, sold products for Capelli’s, cleaned tools for the mechanics at Denis Highway service and worked for Woodwards.
It was while she was working for Woodwards that Drinkwater decided to inquire about a job at the Alberni Valley Times.
“I looked at all the pictures in the newspaper and I thought, well I could do that,” she said. “My dad was into photography and he taught me a lot. He sort of passed that interest on.”
Drinkwater went to the Times and asked the publisher, Nigel Hannaford, if she could get a job selling photos. There wasn’t a need for a photographer at that time but there was another opportunity available.
“He said, I think it would be nice to have a once-a-week column, and your name is well enough known. He said, do you have experience in writing, and I promptly lied and said yes,” Drinkwater said.
Hannaford told her he knew she didn’t have much experience but thought since her name was known in the community that she would work out as a columnist.
Although she enjoyed reading and writing on her own, Drinkwater never studied it further. She figured she had enough skill to write a weekly column about events in the town she knew so well. The column was called Eye Around Town and eventually evolved into a daily column called Neighbours.
“It was anything from birthdays, anniversaries and business stuff,” she said. “They used me for freelance as well as doing the column and that developed more.”
Drinkwater began covering everything from sports to hard news to local events on a freelance basis. Covering a variety of topics allowed Drinkwater to meet a wide variety of people, something she said she values about the job.
“The riches weren’t in the dollar amount, the riches were in the people that I met, that’s huge,” she said. “A lot of them are gone now but I feel really fortunate to have met people in different positions.”
Drinkwater was the first writer to cover the Alberni Valley Golf Club’s Charity Golf Classic, then named the Rob Shick Golf Tournament, and hasn’t missed a year since the inaugural event.
Eventually Drinkwater wanted more responsibility and decided to ask about a job with the Times’ competitor, Alberni Valley News in 2010. She said the publisher at the time, John Tierney, was keen to take her on. She said he was interested in running a Scene and Heard column but had no one to take it on. He told her as soon as she put in her resignation letter with the Alberni Valley Times she would be hired with the News.
It was with the News that she began selling ads in addition to the Scene and Heard column.
Families in Port Alberni have come to know Drinkwater for her Scene and Heard column; she is deeply engaged in the community and rarely misses an event she’s invited to, which is why she will continue with it in retirement.
“One family said to me it wouldn’t be an event if we didn’t invite you,” she said. “I do this job to create awareness of Port Alberni and what a great place it is to live and how fabulous the people are,” she said.
Drinkwater plans to travel after retirement and spend a lot of time enjoying Sproat Lake and gardening.
A retirement party will be held for Drinkwater on Sunday, April 22 from 4 – 7 p.m. at the Lawn Bowling Club. The public is welcome to attend and share their stories with her.