By Gord Bowes, News staff
It’s strange how history works sometimes.
A few years back, some thought Nora Frances Henderson’s name might fade away if it was removed from the Concession Street hospital bearing her name.
Instead, it may have kept her memory alive.
If the name had not changed, people would still refer to it as the Henderson Hospital, “but nobody would ever question was that a woman, for starters,” says historian Pat Saunders.
“That part of history fades into oblivion even though the name is still there. In some ways they’ve done her a favour.”
Henderson, the first woman elected to Hamilton city council, the first female controller elected in Canada, a promoter of children’s rights, women’s rights and health care, was really at the vanguard of the women’s movement, says Saunders.
“She was a woman before her time.”
On Monday, the Civic holiday — George Hamilton Day in Hamilton — Nora Frances Henderson will be honoured as this year’s Greatest Hamiltonian.
In 2007, Hamilton Health Sciences announced it would be renaming the Henderson General Hospital, which was undergoing a $260-million redevelopment, after philanthropist couple Charles and Margaret Juravinski, who had donated $15 million to the hospital and millions more for health care in Hamilton.
There was outrage and debate raged for years. HHS would not back down from the change and Juravinski would not ask for his honour to be skipped.
But if it wasn’t for that uproar, says Saunders, Henderson’s accomplishments may not have been remembered by the general public. It would just be another name on a wall and fewer people each year would know why.
In the end, the HHS named a wing of the redeveloped hospital after Henderson. The city, pushed by the Hamilton Mountain Heritage Society and others, named the streets surrounding the hospital Nora Frances Henderson Circle. Commemorative street signs were posted at each intersection.
Saunders, a member of the Hamilton Historical Board’s Greatest Hamiltonian planning committee, never met Henderson as she was just a teenager when the iconic politician’s career was winding down.
Saunders’ father, a strong union man who worked at Westinghouse, was not a Henderson fan.
“Certainly a topic of conversation when I was growing up was this act of defiance that Nora displayed with regard to the Stelco strike,” Saunders recalls.
When Saunders and others were gathering names on a petition to get the HHS to keep Henderson’s name on the hospital, she encountered the anti-Nora sentiment that lingered. Even people who were not yet born spoke out against Henderson and her act.
But she reminds them the union forgave Henderson.
“They sent her red roses when she was in the hospital,” says Saunders. “Would you send somebody red roses if you hadn’t forgiven them?”
The Greatest Hamiltonian is selected by the public, who were invited to cast ballots when the Hamilton Historical Board set up displays at farmers markets and other locations. Names are put forward for the vote each year by the city’s various heritage societies.
The 2013 Greatest Hamiltonian was Sara Calder. Previous to that it was Clementina Fessenden, Thomas B. McQuesten and George Hamilton.
The ceremony takes place Monday, 11 a.m.-1 p.m. at the hospital formerly known as Henderson, 711 Concession St., in the A Wing, 4th Floor Auditorium.
Central Mountain councillor Scott Duvall is emceeing the event.
David Ricketts will speak about the history of Gore Park. Ricketts is great, great, great grandson of George Hamilton and a member of the event’s planning committee.
There will also be entertainment from Henderson’s era and refreshments.
Nora Frances Henderson (1896-1949) came to Canada from England with her family, settling in Winona.
In her early 20s, Henderson worked as a reporter at the Hamilton Herald, eventually being named women’s editor. She urged local women to take an active interest in community political affairs, according to a Hamilton Public Library biography, and as a result, in 1919, women were appointed to the Hamilton Hospital Board for the first time.
In 1931, Henderson became the first woman elected to Hamilton’s city council. In 1934 she became the first woman in Canada elected to a city Board of Control.
She was elected to 16 consecutive terms serving the municipality. In 1947, she retired to become executive secretary of the Association of Children’s Aid Societies of Ontario.
In 1954, the 322-bed Nora-Frances Henderson Convalescent Hospital opened on Concession Street.