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Former “spy” was a beacon of happiness during her 101 years

Remembering Eileen Glavin: “I just think she really was this beacon of happiness and kindness that was quite infectious.”
Eileen Glavin
New West resident Eileen Glavin once worked as a "spy" in the Second World War. She passed away Jan. 29 at 101.

Eileen Glavin may once have worked as a spy during the Second World War, but it was in her day-to-day life in the decades that followed where she made her greatest impact.

Eileen, a longtime New Westminster resident, passed away on Jan. 29 at the age of 101.

Tony Glavin, one of Eileen’s four sons, said his mother was hugely impactful to many of the people she encountered in the community, not just her family.

“She seemed to kind of lighten up their day and had a way of bringing happiness into their lives,” he said. “I've been so grateful to hear the comments from people who were friends of mine, or neighbours of mine, that just thoroughly enjoyed her company and bumping into her in the community. So that's her legacy, for sure. I just think she really was this beacon of happiness and kindness that was quite infectious.”

Born in Barking, Essex, England on June 16, 1921, Eileen moved to Canada in 1957, settling in Burnaby and raising her sons. She is survived by sons Terry, David and Anthony, and was predeceased by her eldest son, Michael.

Tony recalled times when some of his teenage friends needed a place to stay, and would live with his family for a period of time.

“They just revere my mother as this great caregiver and adult who gave them the time of day and was really kind to them,” he said. “And, you know, we feel that way as her children, obviously, too.”

When Tony was about 10, Eileen became a nanny to Rabbi and Shandi Feuerstein’s eight children. She worked with the family for 19 years, only retiring at the age of 79 when the family returned to their home in New Jersey.

Eileen moved to New Westminster in 1999, first staying with Tony and his family before moving into her own apartment in the Queen’s Park neighbourhood, living there until she was 98. She spent her final years, at the Kiwanis Care Centre, where she enjoyed activities like trivia and spelling.

“She really loved it,” Tony said. “They're really fine people who made her life very enjoyable and fun.”

In September, Kiwanis Care Centre staff took Eileen to Queen’s Park to lay flowers in honour of Queen Elizabeth.

In late 2022, Eileen received a special visit from the children she’d cared for as a nanny, having stayed in touch with the family after they moved back to the United States.

“All of them were back (for a wedding) and they all went out to visit my mother,” Tony said. “And it was just wonderful for her. They sang all the songs that my mom used to sing to them.”

Up until January, Eileen hadn’t been ill, but her condition deteriorated after she had a fall.

“She was in a lot of pain. She said, ‘I think the time's up now; I really do,’” Tony said. “And so we had this period over the last week where I kind of let everybody know that it looked like she was into her last days, and they should really come and see her, and everyone did.”

Among them was Aviva Feuerstein, one of the children for whom she’d been a nanny, who flew from Washington, DC to Vancouver to spend a time with Eileen. She was at Eileen’s bedside when she passed away on the morning of Jan. 29.

The spy years

Before moving to Canada, Eileen served in the Royal Air Force – one of the “Bletchley Girls” who helped intercept enemy codes.

The 2015 Academy Award-nominated film, The Imitation Game, was about Alan Turing, a British computer scientist/mathematician who many consider to be the inventor of the first computer. In the Second World War, he developed techniques for breaking German codes – and Eileen was one of many women who worked in “listening stations” across England.

“I was a spy,” she told the Record with a smile in a 2015 interview. “I was listening in to the German messages. I even got some from the German High Command, you know. We were able to intercept their messages, too. That was something.”

Sworn to secrecy under the Official Secret’s Act, Glavin was not permitted to share any information about her work with anyone. While working as an “interceptor” or a “radio operator,” Eileen and other Bletchley Girls intercepted Morse codes, transcribed the codes into English and typed it out.

“It was very interesting, although we didn’t know what we were taking down. We knew it was important. That’s all we did know. We didn’t know why it was important,” she said. “We were taking this down and it was sent straight over to Turing’s office. It went straight to Bletchley.”

It wasn’t until the 1970s that details began to emerge about the work that had been done at listening stations like the one in Dunstable, where Eileen had worked during the war.

Eileen “the spy” became a bit of a local celebrity following the release of The Imitation Game. In addition to sharing her story with the media, she also spoke at some “human library” events hosted by the City of New Westminster.

Tony said his mom enjoyed those experiences, and seemed to be able to separate out the tougher times, such as the wartime deaths of her brother and her pilot boyfriend, from the more positive experiences.

“I think her attitude was one of: I might as well be happy, because why not?” he said.

Despite some dark moments in her younger years during the war and as a single mother, Tony said his mom He said had an “incredibly positive outlook” and never, ever complained.

“That is her legacy – it's just how she was a friend and someone super reliable, kind, fun and generous,” he said. “She just made people feel good. That's really what she did.”

Paying respects

A funeral service is taking place on Friday, Feb. 10 at noon at St. Peter’s Catholic Church, 330 Royal Ave., with a reception to follow at Centennial Lodge in Queen Park.

In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that people consider making a donation to Kiwanis Care Centre recreation and activity programs in the name of Eileen Glavin.

Donations can also be made to a bursary established in her name at Royal Roads University. The Eileen Glavin Bursary will support students with financial need who have overcome a personal challenge, including single parents.