The Chief

Mary Alice Gillespie

"The Chief" (1886-1994)


Being the last person on this world to speak with our Chief, Mrs. Mary Alice Gillespie, I was charged with the creation of this document; alas, I knew her only in her last years, and most of what I have to report is a parroting of others' stories. The facts, while stunning, are meaningless in themselves; only those who knew her can speak of the character, depth, and fearsome power of 108 years of experience.

This collection is an embarrassing five years late in coming; the pressure resulting in it being written now is that not only do the new pledges have no knowledge of the Chief, but even now our active chapter President, House Manager, and virtually every other officer and member have never met Mrs. G. So aside from the fact that everyone is pressuring me to write this piece, the scariest and most motivating fact is that few people even remember that there is a person to remember.

As a result, as this work makes its rounds through the Theta Chapter Alumni community, please feel free (even obligated!) to add your own memoirs to the bottom of the page; I only arrived on the scene in her 106th year, and have little material to contribute on my own. I would like to see this document as a "live" one for the next few years, as each man adds his own recollections of what it was like living with the Chief.

The Facts

The following is copied from a Vancouver Sun article, printed days after Mrs. G's death:

Two months before Mrs. G. was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1886, her Irish father, a train engineer was killed in a train wreck. Her Scottish mother died in childbirth.

She was raised by two older sisters in different parts of Canada before coming to B.C. to live with another sister in Revelstoke. When she left school she worked at Lake Louise and Banff. She then worked as camp cook, fish cannery worker and as a logger.

She married in 1923 and had her only child at age 48. Her husband Capt. James Gillespie, MBE, died in 1959.

The Sigma Phi Delta, Theta Chapter house was purchased in 1952. However, in order to pay the mortgage off faster, the house was rented to a woman who used it as a boarding house; she resided there until 1960. With the house paid off, the actives moved in. Art Rennison was the first House Manager, from 1960 to 1961–with him lay the responsibility of hiring a house mother.

The house went through three house mothers in as many years. Mrs. Wilson was a chain-smoking 55-year old, who was usually at her wits end coping with her boys. Mrs. Donnelly was a somewhat frail 65-year old who broke her hip falling down the back stairs of the Frat House (the stairs from the Kitchen Annex on the west side of the house for you newbies!). Mrs. Lavallee fared no better in the 1962-63 year, but in 1963, Mrs. Gillespie applied for the job.

As the story goes, Mrs. G was 77 at the time, but lied about her age so that she could fit the job description for house mother at a UBC fraternity house. Having worked as a head cook for a 300-man logging camp on Vancouver Island for a number of years, the Chief was more than qualified for the job–but the house manager thought that someone a bit younger would be needed for the job. Nonetheless, the position was filled and Mrs. G. took the job she'd hold for the next 31 years.


One cannot know about the experience of dealing with the Chief from mere statements about place of birth and whatnot. In order to see more of what Mrs. G. was like, one must lean on anecdotal evidence; as mentioned in the prologue, we need more contributions to make this experience as rounded and time-spanning as possible. Please contribute.

Ben Prins

This may or may not be relevant but the Chief had an uncanny knack for seeing through men, especially in terms of women. She many times in my recollection came up to the house and after the initial "how do you do's" she would deem it necessary to lecture her boys on the true nature of her species. To quote her "Be careful boys, but if you're not careful then be smart, you don't have to marry her. All she's looking for is a meal ticket.". She was referring to getting a woman pregnant out of wedlock.

Once a House Manager she knew (who shall go unnamed), married a girl the chief did not approve of, and subsequently when the marriage failed, she cursed the woman forevermore. I heard that story many times.

On the same vein, a girl I was seeing wanted to meet to chief, so we went down together to drop off some groceries she needed one day. The Chief was quite suspicious and the next time we met alone, she gave me the same stern lecture she reserved for everyone regarding meal tickets. In addition she had a further piece of personal advice in that she felt I had focused too much of my energy on women.

The Chief apparently came to the house one morning after an impromptu House party and saw among others girls sleeping on the couches/floors of the house. She then grabbed the nearest weapon (broom) from what I heard and proceeded to tell the women to get in the kitchen, to quote "you bitches, go in there, clean up and do the dishes".

Adam LaRusic

When I first moved to the house in 1991, the Chief no longer lived there, but she did check up on us fairly regularly, and still did our shopping up at the local Safeway. Things were a little more relaxed in the house. No longer would you hear the clarion cry "No skirts in the house!" and you didn't have to sneak past the Chief's room when you staggered in at two in the morning.

The Chief was notorious at the Safeway store and her mere presence would cause assistant managers to tremble uncontrollably and run for cover in the produce section. But to no avail. The Chief would find them and systematically lead them though the isles by the tie, making comments like "How am I suppose to feed my boys with the cost of these potatoes?" and "This chicken was $2.49 a pound last week and I'm not paying more than $2.49 a pound." The assistant managers, having learned long ago the folly of talking back to the Chief would sheepishly nod their heads and give the Chief the chicken at last week's sale price. You have to remember that the Chief was a spry 104 at the time.

At the house, the boys lived in terror of answering the phone and hearing that gravelly voice. Ben Prins was house manager, and he was supposed to be the one who dealt with the Chief — that's why he got cheap rent. But Ben was far too intelligent to be around when the Chief called, and the Chief didn't care who she was talking to as long as they damned well listened.

Being new at the house, one day I innocently picked up the phone and felt my blood turn to ice as I realized what I had done. The Chief! My first thought was just to yell "Fire" and run out of the house. But I steeled my nerve. If I was going to live here, I was going to have to learn to deal with the Chief.

"I'm ordering the food. What do you boys need?"

Shit, I didn't know. I was new here. How was I supposed to know what we needed? turned to pass the phone to someone more experienced but found that everyone else in the house had instantly and inexplicably disappeared.

"I think we need cereal," I offered. That seemed like a safe bet. At the time, Casey was living at the house, and it was well known that a large and particularly ravenous black hole existed in his stomach, and that Rice Krispies seemed to disappear into him at a phenomenal rate.

"Last week I bought three big boxes of Rice Krispies at $3.55 each and two Corn Flakes," she cried. "That's five boxes of cereal. Five boxes!" The Chief took a breath here to embark on a full-scale verbal assault.

"Uh, wait a minute. Let me just check, Chief."

Offered a moment's reprieve I rushed into the kitchen hoping to find some clue as to what we needed. What a relief to see John Menzies there. He'd been living at the house a while. He would know.

"John. John! What do we need. It's the Chief."

"I think we need salmon," he said. "Tell her we need lots of salmon and some T-bone steaks."

"Thanks, man. Thanks." I wanted to shake his hand I was so grateful.

I rushed back to the phone, more confident now.

"Chief, we need lots of salmon and some T-bone steaks."

There was a moment of silence, during which I thought she was writing this down. In truth, she was merely apoplectic with shock, and when she finally spoke she just about took my head off over the phone.

"Salmon? Salmon! Salmon! Do you know what salmon costs? Do you know how much salmon costs? If you boys think you're going to eat salmon and T-bone steaks on your food bill, then I don't know what to think. You're going to get pork chops and potatoes…"

This went on for about twenty minutes. There was no interrupting her, no getting a word in edgewise. I can still here that explosive cry of "Salmon?" to this day. And the whole time, John was sitting at the table behind me roaring with laughter.

John Menzies got his in the end, though. He had a particularly annoying penchant for spending half the night tying up the phone. You'd kind of hang around so he'd get the hint that you were waiting for a call, or wanted to use the phone, but he'd just turn his back and keep chatting to whomever. John was a pretty buff guy, with long hair and a winning smile, and he always had some new girl he was talking to. For hours.

Well, I guess one time the Chief was trying to get through to the house, and she must've finally got sick of the busy signal. She caught a cab up to the house, marched up the steps and through the door. Instantly everyone froze. Oh my God, a surprise inspection. Were there skirts in the house? Were the radiators clean?

But she ignored everyone and marched right into the dining room where John was blithering away, oblivious to all.

Blam! The Chief's umbrella came down on John's head in a most convincing fashion. John cried out and attempted to make his escape, but–ah, bitter irony–was snagged by the phone cord.

Blam! Blam! The blows rained down on Big John relentlessly, as he howled his protestations and vainly tried to fend off the assault.

"Chief, what are you doing?" he cried out plaintively.

Well, we knew better than to laugh out loud, lest the Chief's baleful eye turn our way, but it was hard not to, seeing Big John cowering before this 104 year old woman. But that was the Chief.

There's one thing that I remember best about the Chief. I was talking to her on the phone one day. By this time I was a veteran of the house, and was only slightly fearful while talking to her. She must've been 105 or 6 at the time. Anyway, I had made some comment about she must've seen it all by now.

"No," she said, "The day that I get up in the morning and I don't learn anything new, that'll be the day that I die."

So I guess the Chief must've finally learned it all.

Art Rennison

In the late 60's, Mrs. G. was often paired, at frat formals, etc, as the younger woman, with our faculty advisor, Jake Turnbull, who died in the seventies at the age of 102. (Jake moved from his own apartment to South Granville Park Lodge at age 100. He later told me that, on his first night at the lodge, "crazy Mary" [no relation] had climbed into bed with him, but Jake, always the gentleman, added "Of course, nothing happened")

Jeff Breadner

One time the Chief was telling me about the weird people who called her up and asked her if she'd like to participate in the "Meals on Wheels" campaign. After explaining the concept to Mrs. G, she resignedly said, "Well, okay, I'll do it. But I can only make you about 200 lunches a day–I'm not as fast as I once was." I don't know what the caller's response was, but somehow the Chief would wind up getting a hot lunch every day.

So, she wrapped them up in tin foil and stuck them in the freezer until the house manager came by for his weekly (bi-weekly?) visit, at which point it became house food. The problem was that none of us liked the damned shit. The freezer was piling up with aluminum-wrapped garbage; it never seemed to get thrown out. But the Chief would always call and ask how the food was, and we'd have to lie and tell her it was great because we thought she was buying, and perhaps cooking it for us.

One day, the whole thing came apart when the Chief said, "I'm glad you guys eat it because I can't stand the damned stuff." I recall there being a lot less aluminum foil in the freezer all of a sudden.

She was strong to the end, angry perhaps at the fact that her body was failing her, but angrier with the doctors who kept zapping her with lasers and keeping her from getting better. We'd often bring her beer, but we'd have to sneak it in; God knows what the nurses would do if they caught a frat boy bringing a 108-year old lady beer. She'd just pour it on her legs that the doctors fucked up, though.

Geoff Lester

I was a pledge in 1992/93. It was also my first year at UBC. I think I weighed 100 pounds soaking wet. And here I am with these actives around, Grover, Wick, Fish, who all weighed, well let's just say more than 100 pounds. So needless to say I did whatever they told me!! Well, one day, the Chief needed some work done in her little yard in front of her place (more of a patio really), so these guys hauled me down there to do it for them. Well, I think she was a little concerned about child labor laws or something, because she asked the guys who I was. They explained I had just started university, and was a new pledge. "He can't be in university," the Chief explained, "He's a 14 year old puppy dog!!" And I've been known as Puppy ever since.

I remember going down there on a separate occasion to do some odd jobs for her with Mike Doll, who was House Manager at the time. She invited us in for some wine when we were done. It's generally a bad sign when the label on the bottle is so old that it's cracking off. But she poured it for us nonetheless, and watched while we drank what was now pure vinegar! But we appreciated the gesture nonetheless. Come to think of it, in the end it tasted better than some of Mike's infamous concoctions anyway!

Every time I'm in Vancouver I drive by the Chief's place and honk, just to say hi.

Scott Groves

It was my first year in the fraternity, and my first time to attend the Chief's birthday party, her 105th or 106th. The Chief came to the house for her party as was her custom. She needed a hand up the stairs, but you could tell right away that she was not frail. Her "damn legs" were the only part of her that was feeling old. It was also the same year that OJ Simpson was on trial. The more experienced guys left an empty chair next to the Chief, and I took it innocently. She immediately gave us the lectures about "skirts in the house", but I had been expecting that. Then out came her cake and a rousing rendition of the requisite song. And Ben Prins, house manager at the time hands her the biggest, nastiest looking knife in the house…

I am not sure that I recall all that happened, because I was scared she was going to skewer me with it. I do remember the Chief saying "OJ is a nice boy. He would never have done anything like that! I know my boys." as she waved the big knife inches from my face. I do remember her really talking a lot about OJ and what she had seen on CNN, and how that horrible woman (the prosecutor) is just a skirt on a mission to hurt one of "her boys". Most of the time, the Chief held the knife point down on her knee, leaning on it with most of her weight. I couldn't take my eyes off that point, waiting for the moment when the blood would come. I am glad to say it didn't, but I can attest that either the Chief did not have any sensation left in that leg or she had one hell of a tolerance for pain. I imagine it was a combination of the two, but have no doubt from what I grew to know of her, that she could have withstood that pain without wincing. She was just that tough.

I attended the rest of her birthday parties. I remember how upset she was in the last year when we had to go to her house because she couldn't make it to the frat house. She was still sharp as a tack, but her body was really failing her. She felt that she had failed us, but she never did. She was tough, she was scary, but she loved Sigma Phi Delta Theta Chapter to the end. She always had "her boys" in her heart, and I hope that we can keep her memory alive, otherwise we are failing her.


The Chief passed away in her home on November 11, 1994. I last spoke with her on the 8th, and in the weeks preceding her death spent quite a bit of time with her–in fact, I think that the laundromat still has some clothes that I had dropped off for her, but never had the occasion to pick up.

I believe the Chief had two favorite articles that she cherished; they represent two very different and distinct parts of her life.

The first was a small (2" diameter, 1" high) handwoven grass basket. It was given to her by "an Indian woman who was older then than I am now" when she was working with her husband in the logging camp on the Island. She loved her husband dearly, and respected him more for his strength and character; she found the same attributes in the natives in a nearby village. They would often get together and hold a potluck, or chat as they worked together; the Chief learned a bit of the language, and would often welcome a pack of house rats with some Indian greeting. That little grass basket, shown to me with such reverence, was her one keepsake of those times.

The second was the Iron Ring which she wore every day, a gift from a graduated Frat member (please enlighten me as to who, and under what circumstances!). Near the end, she had lost so much weight that the ring was actually held on with tape, but on it stayed. I have not been through the Iron Ring ceremony, but I understand that it's to be given to a true engineer by a true engineer, as a reminder to do a good, honest, and thorough job.

I can't think of a better reminder of The Chief.