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Citizens to celebrate the life of a New West legend: “It was in her blood.”

Evelyn Benson’s legacy in New Westminster: “She was part of the fabric of the city for generations.”
Evelyn Benson recently passed away. During her 80s, she wrote two books about New Westminster.

Community members are invited to celebrate a “legend” who made her mark on New Westminster.

Evelyn Benson passed away on April 8 at the age of 90. A celebration of her life is taking place on Saturday, June 15 at 1:30 p.m. at New Westminster Secondary School, 820 Sixth St. Everyone is welcome.

“Evelyn's New Westminster roots go back to 1895. Some of her grandchildren represent the fifth consecutive generation to occupy the family home at 319 Sixth Ave.,” said an obituary written by her family. “Love for and commitment to New Westminster's diverse community and its rich multicultural heritage and traditions were lifelong passions near and dear to Evelyn's heart.”

Evelyn Sangster was born in New Westminster in 1934, the youngest child of James Lewis Sangster (who served as mayor and alderman) and Naomi Sangster (nee Appleton). She attended Herbert Spencer Elementary School, before graduating from Duke of Connaught in 1952.

New Westminster was Evelyn’s home; it’s where she born and raised, and where she attended school, raised a family, volunteered and taught.

“She would say it was in her blood,” said daughter Janet Benson. “With the multiple generations and the stories that she grew up listening to, it was home to her by every definition. She was born at the Royal Columbian and she died at the Royal Columbian. All of her children and her grandchildren and some of her great grandchildren were born in the Columbian.”

After high school, Evelyn attended provincial normal school and went on to work as a Grade 2 teacher in Vancouver. She would later work as a teacher’s aide in Burnaby.

But it was in New Westminster – where Evelyn worked full-time as a substitute teacher at the high school from the 1970s until her retirement in the 1990s – where she came to know hundreds of students.

Because she often worked at the high school her children attended, Evelyn was adamant that her kids inform her if they were planning to skip out – so she wasn’t caught off-guard by an inquiry from another teacher in the lunchroom.

At New Westminster Secondary School, Evelyn was co-conductor of the school’s folk-rock-choir, the New Westminstrels (with children's singer/songwriter, Charlotte Diamond). She was also a performer in large-scale musicals at the high school.

Evelyn, a trained singer, won numerous music festivals in her youth. Her many contributions to the arts included serving as founding president of the Royal City Musical Theatre Company, which continues to produce annual shows at Massey Theatre each spring.

Along with helping to get Royal City Musical Theatre off the ground, Evelyn’s legacy extends to the literary arts. While in her 80s, she wrote two books about local history in New Westminster – A Century in a Small Town: One Family's Stories (Volumes 1 and 2).

In 1993, Evelyn was named as New Westminster’s Citizen of the Year, in recognition of her contributions to the community.

“It was a surprise,” Janet said. “She certainly wasn't expecting the nomination, and she really wasn't expecting to win, but she was very proud of the recognition.”

Mayor Patrick Johnstone recently acknowledged Evelyn’s passing.

“New Westminster has lost a legend,” he said at a council meeting. “It was sad to hear about the passing of Evelyn Benson, who many people of New Westminster will know. She was a singer. She was an author. She was a teacher. She was a mother, a grandmother and a great-grandmother. She was part of the fabric of the city for generations.”

Johnstone noted that Evelyn had been contributing to her community until the time of her death, having attended a May Day fundraiser only weeks earlier. He said she donated some of the proceeds of her book sales to the May Day celebration that was near and dear to her heart.

Love story

Evelyn is survived by her husband, Don Benson, and the large extended family they created, including their five children, nine grandchildren, five great-grandchildren, six step-grandchildren and eight step-great-grandchildren.

Janet said her parents were attending different schools in New Westminster when they met in March 1950 at the annual St. Patrick's Day snake parade – an event that saw students from both schools meet, join hands and make a “snake” that moved through the city.

“Mom and dad happened to end up linking hands. And at the end of it all, when everybody let go, they kept holding hands,” Janet said. “And then that night, mom went to a dance, and he was there; they were both hoping the other would be there. That was it.”

Evelyn, who had been attending a summer camp on Keats Island since she was about nine, later served as a junior leader at the camp. In the summer of 1950, just months after the couple had met, Evelyn’s boyfriend “Donny” visited her on Keats Island at the camp’s Visitor’s Day.

“They went for a walk, and she said, you know, some of my friends have cabins here; I have to go back to the city, and one day I'd like to have a cabin here,” Janet said. “And my dad, he said, ‘Well, one day, I'll build you one.’ And he did.”

The soulmates married at Olivet Baptist Church in New Westminster on Aug. 26, 1953. Together they raised five children (Mark, Scott, Kim, Janet and Jay) and were active in many sports and community organizations.

As planned, the couple acquired a 10-acre waterfront property on Keats Island in 1981 and built their dream home. It was there that they gathered with family every summer for 43 years and where Evelyn and Don celebrated their 70th anniversary and renewed their vows in August 2023, surrounded by four generations of family, extended family, and close friends.

Donations in Evelyn Benson's honour can be made to the New Westminster May Day Community Association and the Royal Columbian Hospital Foundation.