Opal (McFarland) Richards




Life and Work

Opal Olga McFarland was born on January 19th, 1904 near Grass Valley, Oregon to Anthony Wayne McFarland and Effie Jane Kingsbury. She was the eldest of four children. In June, 1913, when Opal was nine years old, Wayne and Effie brought their family by train from Washington to Vegreville, Alberta. They arrived in the midst of a rain storm which caused them to stay in a hotel for three days until the muddy country roads were passable again.

The family was met by Wayne’s brother, Herb Maricle who came with a team and wagon to move them out to his homestead 40 miles away. Opal recalls that it was an all day trip and they had to ferry the river. They made their way through the beautiful countryside, which was seeded, green and blooming with wild Alberta roses.

The family lived on Herb’s place for three years then the McFarlands moved to a homestead nearby where they built a log house. The cracks were chinked with mud. Effie and the girls gathered sticks and roots for the heater. When Opal’s mother caught a cold from the dampness and took to her bed, young Opal was asked to kill a chicken for soup, which she did. She realized that the gall bladder shouldn’t be touched as it would spoil the meat. She prepared the chicken and two hours later had broth for her Mama. Opal’s readiness to take care of people at a young age may have sewn the seeds for the nursing career she eventually chose.

From 1913-1918 Opal and her sister, Faye, attended a country school called Quiet Nook, 2½ miles from home. Coming home in a blizzard one winter afternoon, Opal rubbed Faye’s cheeks with snow when she noticed they were getting frost-bitten. Then the sisters removed their flannelette petticoats and used them for scarves to protect their heads and faces from the wind.

When Opal was 12, she received organ lessons from her teacher, Miss Mielke, along with three other older girls. Opal recalls they had wonderful school Christmas concerts and they sang, danced and recited. Good times were celebrated. When neighbours gathered, someone played the fiddle and people danced.

In spring of 1918, the family moved from their homestead to the Cockrell ranch, three miles from Lavoy. Opal attended high school in Lavoy and completed Grade 10. During that time, she rode a horse to school. At 17, she went into Nurses Training at Lamont Hospital. Opal remembers her mother, Effie, sewing her blue nursing dresses along with her bibs, aprons, cuffs and caps.

Following her training, Opal moved to Wetaskiwin and began nursing at the Hospital. The Prince of Wales Hotel, which had been turned into a hospital during World War I, also served as a residence for the nurses. The Matron in Wetaskiwin Hospital was Matron Florence Goodspeed and she quickly became a role model to the young nurses. Goodspeed, who was from Boston, wore a veil instead of a nurse’s cap. Opal chose, in the style of Goodspeed, to do the same. Upon commencing work at the hospital, she immediately bought 3 yards of voile and sewed herself three veils.

During her time at the Hospital, Opal was sometimes required to accompany the doctor when he made housecalls. Some of the calls were at Pigeon Lake or in the countryside surrounding Wetaskiwin. She would be called upon to assist the doctor with a variety of illnesses, from pneumonia to ruptured appendix. Opal particularly liked taking care of babies. One spring, there were seven babies born in the hospital and extra help had to be called in. The doctors called the nurses by their last names, so a doctor would say, “Can I have a nurse? McFarland you can go.” Eventually, she became known simply as “Mac”.

Opal continued to live in residence on the third floor of the Hospital until her marriage. On June 30, 1926 Opal married Cecil Richards, whom she had met in the Wetaskiwin Hospital. The couple moved in with Joe Richards, Cecil’s father. Cecil's two younger siblings, Byron and Vivian, were still living at home at the time. Opal and seventeen year-old Vivian became great friends and the friendship flourished. For both girls the relationship seemed to deliver what each was missing. Mac made a point of taking Vivian along on outings and even to tea dances at the “Pal” (Pal-o-Mine Café). Mac very much enjoyed music and dancing. After Vivian entered Normal School in Edmonton, she would come home on weekends and she and Mac would go to dances and movies together. Often they would be escorted on the train to Edmonton by Byron, Cecil’s younger brother. Cecil and Mac continued to look out for Vivian throughout her life.

After her marriage, Mac did only special nursing, mostly in the hospital. This involved many night vigils keeping watch over her patients. Occasionally she would take individual cases, on the doctors' recommendation, nursing patients in private homes. She always wore her uniform even when doing home nursing. In later years, she ‘specialled’ for family members, taking care of first her father-in-law, Joe and later her husband Cecil. In the years after Mac no longer nursed in an official capacity, she carried on unofficial consultations. She was well-known and well-regarded in the community and would regularly get calls from people asking her advise on health problems. She continued to visit the ill at home and in hospital, rubbing their feet, giving comfort any way she could.

In 1930, Opal’s only child, Gordon Arthur Richards was born. Gordon grew up in Wetaskiwin and chose a career in banking. He worked in various locations throughout Western Canada until his retirement. He married in 1956 and he and his wife Doris have two children.

Opal and Cecil continued to live with her father-in-law until 1936 when the whole family moved into the Criterion Hotel Apartments. In the mid-thirties, the couple built a log cabin cottage at Ma-me-o Beach and kept it for the next 19 years. Family members have fond memories of many summers vacations spent at the Lake cottage with Mac and Cecil.

While summers were spent at the Lake, most winters saw Mac and Cecil traveling to
warmer climates where they were often joined by relatives and good friends from Wetaskiwin. Opal reflects that Christmas 1978 Gordon and his family came to be with them in California. Interspersed with their many trips to sunny California, the couple sometimes liked to winter in Victoria and Hawaii, the last time being around 1980.

Opal was very creative. She could draw well and took up oil painting about 1948. She was quite a skilled artist and sold some of her paintings over the years, but mostly gave them away to friends and family. Since she loved flowers, she would sometimes incorporate the flowers she had grown into her paintings. However, she also loved horses and did several paintings of them as well. One year she traveled to Edmonton to take art lessons from Professor Glyde, a well-known artist. Today, the few paintings she has kept for herself are displayed on the walls of her home.

Another passion of Opal’s which allowed her to be creative and keep busy wherever she happened to be, were handicrafts, particularly crocheting. As each baby was born into the family, Opal ensured that they had a baby set, complete with sweater, bonnet and booties. As the years went by, she extended her kindness to include other newborns born in the Wetaskiwin Hospital. The afghans she crocheted were well-used and well-loved by anyone she gave them to. Opal today, at the age of 102 has again felt inspired to take up her crochet hook, creating yet another baby outfit.

In 1953 the log cabin at the lake was sold and three years later the Richards bought land west of Wetaskiwin and built a home there. The house was moved to Wetaskiwin in 1967 and still stands today. Opal lived there until four years ago, gardening and tending her beloved cats.

Throughout her life, one of Opal’s favourite pastimes was the cultivation of flowers. The summers spent at Ma-me-o Beach saw Opal’s flower garden thriving profusely while almost all the other yards featured only sand. Because of the sandy soil, dirt and fertilizer had to be transported in. Her son Gordon recalls lugging pails of water up from the lake to fill the water tubs for his mother’s flowerbeds. Opal even had a pond with water lilies at the lake property. Mac’s niece, Kaye, remembers her aunt never going anywhere (to a family event) without a big bouquet of flowers for the hostess, especially gladiolus, her favourites. She generously shared flowers from her garden for weddings and other occasions.

Opal continues to grow flowers wherever she lives and to this day, tends a small flower patch at her home in Madyson Manor. She has a standing order with a local florist. Every two weeks a fresh bouquet of flowers is delivered to Opal’s home, where she has a special place for them. All of her long life, it seems Mac has really taken time to “smell the flowers”.

Another facet to this incredible woman, is that she likes staying connected and still writes letters to her relatives in the United States and Canada. Because she is able to see well, she enjoys doing puzzles and playing cards. It has also been said that she likes to cut her own hair. If that is the case, she is doing a fine job of it. A close family member believes that Mac lives in the moment. This ability, along with her enduring strength, resilience and willingness to give of herself has helped this practical, sensible lady to live the life she chose.

Compiled in 2006.


Compiled by: Gloria Baker

Sources: Opal Richards, Dennis Pederson, Muriel Francoeur, Elaine Brackenbury, Kaye Steward, Gordon and Doris Richards