A fashion icon, an independent business owner and a groundbreaking school trustee, Helen Mather was an impressive woman, particularly given her career spanned eras when most women were expected to stay home.
Helen was born one of two daughters on Aug. 2, 1922, in the Preston area of Cambridge to Polish immigrant parents Albin and Rose Krasno. In 1912, when Rose was only 16, she had been scheduled to sail to Canada aboard the Titanic and luckily missed the boat, or Helen’s marvellous story would not have happened.
Albin and Rose had met and married in Canada, moving to Preston, where they raised their daughters Helen and Lillian. Life for immigrants wasn’t easy. Rose took in washing and Albin worked in a Cambridge factory. The family also ran a small store, with Helen and Lillian selling milk, candy and ice cream in the summers. They called the business “The Booth” and it would be in this modest shop that Helen would learn business skills.
Both girls attended St. Mary’s High School, and Helen met Bill Mather during her time at the Kitchener school. She was 13, and Bill, an accomplished jazz musician, was 15.
“He had a band and that attracted my mom to him,” said daughter Pam Mather. “He won all the awards that were available.”
With love rooted in ones so young, there would be one separation that must have seemed interminable to the teens.
“Dad went to England for a couple of years to study music,” said Pam. “Their love lasted.”
So did Bill’s passion for music.
The couple married in 1942 and had three children: Pam, Tom and Nancy. Bill got a day job as a carpenter though he continued to pursue music, leading the Bill Mather Dixieland Band and later, the Over the Hill Gang.
Bill’s bands were always in demand and Helen often accompanied him to his gigs. She loved music, particularly jazz, and it became the core of their family life.
“Music was all around us,” said Pam. “Mom and my aunt played piano; my father’s family all played piano.”
Helen worked in a clothing store before opening Helen Mather Fashions on Ainslie Street in Galt in 1968. It was a big move for the mother of three.
“Dad was a big supporter of hers,” said Pam, adding her father had switched from carpentry to real estate around the same time.
“It was an exciting time for both of them,” said Pam.
Daughter, Nancy Jones, said her mom was “very outgoing, always wanting to meet new people.”
“She was interested in people’s lives,” she added.
That personality trait made the store a community hub, with entire families coming in to chat, to browse, to enjoy the warmth of friendship and, of course, the upscale fashions. Helen got her driver’s licence in the 1950s, bought a car and made regular trips to the Toronto Garment District, as well as Montreal. She knew what her customers would like and bought accordingly. Her taste was impeccable.
Nancy worked with her mother for decades, eventually taking over managing the place, though even into her 80s, Helen would show up almost every day.
“Even after she retired, she said she’d still be selling in her dreams,” laughed Nancy, who closed the store in 2009.
Always eager to contribute to her community, Helen decided to go into politics in 1960, running as the first female trustee in what was then the Preston Separate School Board.
“I remember all the fuss about her being the first woman to run,” said Pam. “Some didn’t think she’d get in because she was a woman.”
They were wrong as Helen did win the election, serving as a trustee for a couple of terms.
“She was all for Catholic education,” said Pam.
Helen’s happy life would come crashing down after Bill died of a heart attack in 1981. Without her greatest supporter, Helen said she’d never smile again, but she did and instead focused her attention on the family.
In his eulogy, Tom noted his mother was devoted to her grandchildren. “The length that she would travel to follow grandchildren and great-grandchildren and even great-great-grandchildren in their interests and pursuits was another legendary characteristic.”
Pleasure travel had long been a big part of Helen’s life and it all started after Lillian moved to California. Regular visits to her sister sparked an eagerness to explore other places.
Granddaughter, Stephanie Jones, recalled, “I will remember the trips we took together all over the world; always made special by Nanny calling attention to all the sights so that we wouldn’t miss a thing.”
Helen died on July 6, 2021, and at her funeral, they played a recording from Bill’s band. A fitting tribute.