Marilyn Gibson is at home in front of her sewing machine, where she still does alterations despite being retired from dressmaking. SUSAN QUINN PHOTO

SENIORS WEEK: Marilyn Gibson is a woman of contradictions

From teaching English to immigrants to rugby, Port Alberni senior connects with community

The Alberni Valley News is celebrating Seniors Week in Port Alberni with a series of features on local seniors.

Marilyn Gibson is a woman of contradictions.

A dressmaker and teacher by trade, and a rugby fan by choice, Gibson is involved in myriad activities in the Alberni Valley, from teaching English and cooking classes to newcomers, minor hockey, rugby and dressmaking.

When she was 11 years old, growing up in England, her grandmother—a tailoress—began teaching Gibson how to sew. Eventually she took evening classes in dressmaking, tailoring and millinery (hatmaking), achieving City and Guild certificates in these trades. She also started a teaching certificate.

“After the first year I was asked to work and I started teaching ladies’ tailoring,” she said. She went to school again in Huddersfield, taught in London for a year and then moved to Port Alberni in 1974.

Within days of arriving in Port Alberni she was hired at the former Klitsa School to teach home economics; a job she continued until she had her two sons. She also spent many years as a substitute teacher in the Alberni Valley.

“When I sewed, I liked the building of everything. I enjoyed building men’s suits. I like weddings and graduation and dance (outfits); I like the fun about it, I like the frilly and feminine side of things.” Now, her focus has turned to alterations rather than creating dresses and suits.

Gibson can be found most often at Literacy Alberni on Tebo Avenue, where she teaches English as a second language. She is the ESL coordinator as well as a tutor, and has been involved ever since Literacy Alberni began 12 years ago. The fact she herself was an immigrant to Port Alberni has kept her there. “I teach English to newcomers and I have a cooking class,” she says.

“I try to educate (learners) about Canadian life, Canadian traditions, Canadian customs. We try to organize field trips and guest speakers to help them become more Canadian. Being an immigrant, I understand the transitions of coming from a foreign country to here, but not with a language difference.”

Last year she organized a trip to Victoria for learners to attend the RCMP Musical Ride—something she had attended 11 years earlier and loved. She also organized a trip to Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island in the spring, where learners visited First Nations artist Roy Vickers’ gallery and listened to his storytelling. Other field trips are closer to home, such as a trip to Naesgaard’s Farm Market where participants planted their own hanging baskets.

“I say to them, every subject, it has its own vocabulary,” she explains.

She has come full circle with her teaching: her Wednesday cooking class takes place in the old food room in the Klitsa school building, “across from the sewing room that was my old classroom.”

When she is not teaching or altering grad or wedding dresses, Gibson spends her time involved in sports in the Alberni Valley—not playing, but volunteering.

When her sons were young, she got involved with their sports: hockey for David in the winter and softball for both of them in the summer. She is one of two lifetime members of the Alberni Valley Minor Hockey Association, and there is an award named for her that goes to the AVMHA’s volunteer of the year.

“When my son (David, the oldest) was an atom, I was invited to join,” she explains. She sat on the board of directors, has helped with fundraisers and stitches the sponsor bars on all the leagues’ hockey jerseys. She has been involved with photograph night and scholarships; recently she has been procuring sponsorships for recreation teams.

“I’ve been involved for 30 years,” she said. “Part of that is I’m giving back because hockey did a lot for David.”

Her youngest son, James, played soccer but timing often conflicted, so she elected to help out with softball to be involved with him.

David’s playing for the Junior B Bandits let to Gibson becoming involved with the Alberni Valley Jr. A Bulldogs when Junior A hockey came to town. She used to help sell 50/50 tickets, but now sells retail items in the lounge area during games. She also gets paid to do any sewing the Bulldogs’ uniforms need.

Gibson has been involved with the Port Alberni Black Sheep rugby club since its inception. “I’m a fundraiser extraordinaire,” she says, smiling. She sells raffle tickets in the clubhouse during the games and helps with the club’s chicken sales three times per year.

While she doesn’t spend as much time watching the Black Sheep from the sidelines anymore, Gibson still enjoys watching rugby. She already has plans to attend World Cup rugby in Japan in 2019. “I was in New Zealand in 2011 and England in 2015. I plan to go to Japan in 2019,” she said.

“Rugby really is my first sport,” she says. “I really enjoy tennis too, and I’m going in July to Wimbledon.”

There is no worry of Gibson staying in her home country following the tennis championships, though: “I love living in Port Alberni.”

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