Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Veteran magazine writer and author
Edna Staebler dies at 100

Edna Staebler a woman who started her career as a freelance magazine writer in the heyday of Maclean's, Chatelaine and Saturday Night in the '40s, '50s and early '60s and went on to write 20 books, including two of Canada's bestselling cookbooks, has died at the age of 100.

For many years she lived in a cottage beside Sunfish Lake, near Waterloo and held court for visitors from all over the world. Originally trained as a teacher, she taught school for only one year, but was a writer for a lifetime. She specialized in writing minutely researched magazine stories telling of the extraordinary lives of ordinary people. For more than 80 years she maintained diaries, which were recently published as Must Write: Edna Staebler's Diaries (WLU Press, 2005).

She was nearing 60 when, in 1968, she wrote a Mennonite cookbook called Food That Really Schmecks, which had evolved out of earlier articles she had written about the sect's life in north Waterloo. The book became a much reprinted bestseller that remains popular almost 40 years later and has never gone out of print.

Among her books, some of which grew out of her magazine journalism, were Haven't Any News, Ruby's Letters (WLU Press), The Schmecks Appeal Cookbook Series (McClelland and Stewart/McGraw Hill Ryerson, 1990), Whatever Happened to Maggie (McClelland and Stewart, 1983), More Food and Schmecks Appeal (ed.), 1979, Cape Breton Harbour (McClelland and Stewart, 1972), and Food That Really Schmecks (McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1968).

Staebler was born on the dining room table of her parent's home in Kitchener on January 15, 1906 and celebrated her 100th birthday this year. Kathryn Wardropper, who administers the non-fiction award, said at the time of Staebler's 100th birthday party (attended by 500 of her closest friends) that the birth must have been on a sunny day or in the midst of a full-blown winter storm; either would have been appropriate for a woman who was "complex, stubborn and joyful". They must have been attractive qualities, because throughout her life she maintained close friendships with some of Canada's most famous writers, including Margaret Laurence, W.O. Mitchell, Sheila Burnford, and Pierre Berton.

At the time of Staebler's centennial, Veronica Ross, a Kitchener author who wrote Staebler's biography (To Experience Wonder: Edna Staebler, A Life, Dundurn Press, 2003) said: "She radiates a charisma, a joy in life. She focuses on people and makes them feel important."

She received an honourary doctorate from Wilfrid Laurier University and a National Magazine Award for a 1987 story about the hilarious litigation over a Mennonite cookie recipe she published. She was honoured by the Canadian Women's Press Club for outstanding journalism in 1950.

Staebler was extraordinarily generous with the proceeds from her publishing, establishing and supporting several awards including the Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction, (administered by Wilfrid Laurier University) -- the only one of its kind in Canada. She endowed a writer-in-residence program at the Kitchener Public Library. Twenty-five years ago, she and writers Harold Horwood and Farley Mowat put up the seed money to start the award-winning literary magazine The New Quarterly, which has celebrated its 25th anniversary. In the latter years of her life she quietly made substantial gifts to many of the arts and cultural organizations she valued most.

[UPDATE: a more detailed tribute to Staebler was published today in the Record newspaper.]
[UPDATE: A follow-up; friends recall Edna Staebler, from the Record.]


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