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Helen Brimmell: a pioneer of news and a lifetime of community contribution

A pioneering, award-winning journalist for over 50 years, Helen Brimmell passed away in August at the age of 104

Helen Brimmell had a lifelong interest in news.  

An award-winning journalist for over 50 years, Brimmell passed away peacefully on Aug.15 in Guelph with family by her side. She was 104.

“It was an interesting household growing up with my parents because they were both news hounds,” said Brimmell’s daughter, Louise Brimmell-Tripp.

“It was never dull around the dining room table. They never 'dumbed' down the news for me and my brother, Richard. We got what was happening in the world ‘full tilt’ from our parents.”

Louise says it was a real treat tagging along with her parents on assignments.

“That meant throwing the two of us in the car at all hours of the day and night. Of course, my brother’s superpower was that he could sleep through anything, a church burning, riots, or a parade,” Louise said.

“When the world wondered if the Russians were going to attack, we were off to watch the American planes that were flying along the border 24/7. It was an interesting time.”

Brimmell was born in Owen Sound on May 28, 1920.

“My mother was born premature and was quite sickly. She was not expected to live past age 10. Did that doctor ever get it wrong!” Brimmell said.

In 1939, Brimmell studied English at the University of Toronto and worked for the student newspaper, The Varsity. After graduation, Brimmell joined the Toronto Bureau of The Canadian Press (CP) as only the third woman to be elected a full member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery in Ottawa.

After working with CP in Montreal and New York, and as city editor in Toronto, Brimmell accepted a contract position with the Royal Gazette in Hamilton, Bermuda, where she met her journalist husband, Richard.

The couple returned to Canada and were married in Owen Sound on April 14, 1951.

Richard accepted a position with the Guelph Mercury. His wife had written art reviews previously, and did so at the Mercury where eventually she became family editor in 1970.

Brimmell retired in 1985 but continued to write art reviews until 1990.

“My mother had a lifelong passion for art and painting. Growing up in Owen Sound, her neighbours were the sisters of Canadian artist Tom Thomson,” Louise said.

“The story goes that when she was very good, she was allowed to go and play in their garage, which is where they stored the paintings that eventually became iconic pieces of work throughout Canada and the world.”

Louise says her mother was an avid painter.

“She loved to experiment and took numerous art trips with a Guelph group of artists. She travelled extensively on painting trips all over the world. She especially loved going to Mexico.”

Brimmell joined the Guelph Creative Arts Association in 1955 serving in many positions including president and honorary president.

She was an active member of the Guelph Civic Museum and served on the founding committee of the Guelph Arts Council in 1974 and on the founding committee of Third Age Learning in 1985.

Brimmell also volunteered at the Art Gallery of Guelph. She joined the Victoria Guelph Chapter of the IODE, serving as Regent from 1992 – 1996 and continued to serve on the executive board until her passing.

She was a long-time member of the Guelph Chapter of the Canadian Federation of University Women, the Guelph Historical Society, and the Chancel Guild of St. George’s Anglican Church. She was public relations officer of the South Wellington Division of the Girl Guides for which she was honoured with an award.

From 1985-1991 she was one of three Guelph members on the board of the Grand River Conservation Foundation. In 1999, Brimmell was named the YMCA-YWCA Women of the Year Distinction for Art and Culture.

In 2016, she was acknowledged by the House of Commons in Ottawa for having been a full member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery.

In 2020, Brimmell had a fall resulting in a broken hip. Just before her 100th birthday, she moved into Arbour Trails in Guelph.

During COVID-19, Brimmell developed her computer skills that included Zoom gatherings and Teams meetings.

“She was pretty good with the computer before COVID-19. It took her a little bit to get onto Zoom and Teams, but she was on all of them,” Louise said.  

“COVID-19 didn’t bother her. She was such an avid reader. She would read through three daily newspapers a day, a couple magazines and probably a book everyday. So, during the pandemic, it just gave her more time to do that without being interrupted.”

Louise said there wasn’t much that her mother was afraid of.

“But one thing she was afraid of was getting her driver’s licence, so she never did. She didn’t want to drive. She had a premonition that if she got her licence, she would be in a horrible accident, and someone would die. I teased her at her 100th birthday saying that I was going to sign her up with Young Driver’s of Canada and send her off to driving school,” Louise said.  

“She was a lively little character, but she was shy about letting people get to know who she was. She loved her art, she loved to travel, and she loved food.”

When Louise would visit her mother, she would have to ensure that she was caught up on the news.

“I knew there would be a grilling,” she said.

Louise says her parents shared a love for Guelph and wanted to do their bit to make sure their city stayed a beautiful and wonderful place.

“My mother very much loved Guelph and wanted to make it a better place,” Louise said.

“I think she accomplished that.”