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Rest in light, Wonder Woman

By on June 14, 2017

Pema Chodrem preaches about lessons being repeated until you learn the value of that lesson but if I take inventory of the lessons that have been blasted my way in the form of death and loss, I’d be a deer in the headlights wondering what more I need to learn.

There were no profound last goodbyes or final conversation that I will carry with me when it comes to the death of my mentor, former boss and friend, Ruth Kelly. In fact, I didn’t think I would be here, right now, so soon after the death of my life long friend and brother, merely weeks later discussing her tragic and sudden passing.

Here’s what I know about Ruth Kelly, CEO and publisher of Venture Publishing/ Alberta Venture/ Alberta Oil Magazines; she was more than the influential Albertan who most people came to know through her success of publishing a business magazine; she was a mentor to women, the champion of the underdog who cheered their every success, the trailblazer to entrepreneurs and business women, but more than that, she was the maternal figure to so many wounded souls who needed to find their way.

I was one of those wounded souls and for many reasons I’ll never understand, she chose to shine her light upon me and give me a chance in my career, dismissing anyone who questioned her loyalty and faith in me (and there were many people who wondered why a woman of her stature would believe in someone like me).

This tweet is from Oct. 15, 2011 before I changed my focus to FIERCE.

The funny thing is that when I first was hired to work at Venture Publishing in 2000, she really didn’t like me. In fact, she made it a habit to mention how much I annoyed her because I reminded her so much of her younger self. I didn’t care. I wasn’t looking for her approval but I was trying to figure out my career after leaving the sports writing industry the year before. Ruth became the one person I attached my ambition to, thinking that if I could just be like her when I grew up then maybe, MAYBE, I could achieve the respect and success she had achieved. She didn’t like me much, though, and when I left Venture to have my son, Oscar, she made it clear that I would not work for her again. Maybe it was because I was the first person in her company to leave on maternity leave or maybe it was my outright arrogance and defiance (who knows?) but we cut ties and didn’t speak until 5 years later when I decided to launch my own magazine.

I sheepishly called her up and asked if she remembered me. She did but not in the way I expected her to remember me. She was kind, gracious and nurturing which caught me off guard so I asked if she would be willing to take a look at my concepts.

“I charge exorbitant amounts of money for my time,” she said. “But come by the new office and I’ll take a look at what you have.”

When we met, she hated all of my ideas from the logo to the content and everything in between however she offered advice and even asked if I wanted to work out of her office. I declined the offer because I wanted to work from home since Lauryn was only 6 months old. As for the advice, I soaked it all up and looked at it as the opportunity to learn from the best without having to pay for tuition I couldn’t afford. She took me under her wing and supported me every step of the way, teaching me the ins and outs of publishing and offering tips to thrive in an unforgiving environment. I began to see her from a new perspective, one that I could forever call upon as a mentor and a friend.

In 2008, she was awarded the Canadian Women in Communications Woman of the Year award and I went to see her speak at an event in Edmonton the following year:

As I found my niche in the publishing world, I watched Ruth influence people and help shape Alberta through her philanthropy, business acumen, and leadership. She served on multiple boards, received multiple awards for her service to the business and publishing communities, and was considered a mentor by many entrepreneurs.

Eventually, I transitioned from publishing to producing the FIERCE awards and one night, after the 2nd annual FIERCE awards in 2011, Ruth and I went for wine. I was telling her about the event and how it had helped pull me out of the depression I had spiralled into after my grandfather passed away the year before. I opened up to her about the darkness that had consumed me for most of my life, my relationship with my mom and why I valued my relationship with her so dearly.

“I haven’t had a maternal figure in my life since I was 19,” I told her. “I left home when I was 15 and when my grandma died, I was 19. Since then, I guess I’ve been subconsciously looking up to the women I admired to fill that hole in my life. You’re one of those women.”

I babbled on, telling her about the moments I had in my life where I felt like I couldn’t keep going, especially recently when I felt my life spin out of control.

She listened intently, placing her hand on mine and looked me directly in the eyes. “If you ever get to a place like that in your life, if you even feel like you’re slipping into that place again, I want you to promise that you will reach out. Mental health is so important and I want you to know that I will always be here for you.”

I nodded, assuring her that I was on the mend but would definitely ask for her help if I needed it.

Eventually, I convinced her to take time out of her busy schedule to be a part of the FIERCE awards as a judge. She was impressed with the processes I had put into place for the event but still managed to find ways to improve the systems. She always made me elevate my game, challenging me to think bigger and consider different strategies to take everything I did to the next level.

“I’m proud of you,” she told me after the event. “You did an excellent job of bringing together a diverse and interesting group of people. You should be very proud of yourself.”

 

Throughout my career, she mentored me and offered reference after reference, promising on her reputation that I would be the best employee and elevate any company I was with.

Eventually, she asked me to return to Venture in a managing role and despite my reluctance to change our relationship, I agreed. I rejoined in February 2015, excited to work with Ruth again and return to the Venture family.

Often times, she would regale me with tales of her younger days in publishing, comparing my personality to hers and reminding me that she didn’t need another Ruth around the office. “You need to be a gentler version of me.”

I rolled my eyes and said, “Uh huh, YOU need to be a gentler version of you!” I replied, laughing at her comment.  Man, that woman was intimidating. Time and time again, I found myself cringing at the thought of talking to her about a project, knowing she would find holes in my plans or challenge me to find a better way of doing something. I had this insane fear of letting her down and it crippled my confidence for a while. I can’t tell you the number of times I would go home and vent to my husband about how frustrating she could be.

“She loves you, don’t take it personally,” he would reassure me.

“I don’t care, she is so goddamn STUBBORN!”

“She did say you reminded her of herself,” he added.

“Shut up!”

During my time at Venture Publishing, I decided to write Forgiveness and Other Stupid Things and when it was done, I took time to think about the acknowledgements. I looked back over the years and my journey to get to where I was, thinking about the people who played a role in my life and the people who believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself.

Last year, we were having a meeting when she looked at me and said, “I just received some news and I’m befuddled by it.”

“OK… care to share?”

She looked at me and said, “The University of Alberta is presenting me with an honorary doctor of laws degree.”

The baffled look on her face made me laugh. “Of course they are, that’s AWESOME! I want to come to the ceremony! And OH MY GAWD, I get to call you Doctor Ruth!”

We laughed and she said, “I haven’t told anyone yet so please don’t say anything on Twitter or I’ll have to fire you.”

Anytime I saw Ruth speak, I was in awe and at the convocation ceremony, it was no different. I listened as she inspired the 2016 graduating class with her resilience, poise and grace, leaving them with this message: Be curious. Be bold. Be kind.

A month later, her 60th birthday was looming and I decided to scrounge up some cash from my fellow coworkers to buy her a gift. I decided on a family tree pendant to symbolize our dysfunctional and awesome Venture family.

I left Venture a month ago but my loyalty to Ruth remained fierce. I wish I could tell you our last exchange but it was nothing memorable, probably some work-related thing where she was giving me 5 minutes to ask about something insignificant.

I have no regrets, though. I have always viewed Ruth Kelly as Ruth, my friend, not Ruth, my boss or Ruth, the influential Albertan. My boss was frustrating, annoying and a serious pain in my ass but I could let it go because she elevated my game as a communications specialist, a creative and a human being. My friend was compassionate, kind and warm, and she saw something in me that few others did. I’m forever grateful for how she pushed me to better in every aspect of my life.

The news of her death hit me hard. I broke down in a way I had never broken down by the loss of a loved one. I watched both grandparents die of cancer, got through the sudden loss of a boyfriend when I was 21, the death of my mom in 2013, my beloved father-in-law in 2014 and the most recent loss of my life long friend and brother last month. Between those losses, there were others but they were the most significant to me. They were all heartbreaking but Ruth’s death has been especially hard.

My family has had to watch me deal with too much death this month.

Last night, I went to a tribute to Ruth’s life and reconnected with my Venture family. We are forever bonded by this woman and what she did for us, and I’m grateful for the people I’ve come to know and love/hate as part of my dysfunctional family. When I got home, I sat on the couch with a glass of whiskey (not Scotch, sorry Ruth!!) and took a deep breath, thinking about how Ruth changed my life.

Lauryn looked at me and said, “Ruth really was Wonder Woman.”

“What makes you say that?”

“I don’t know,” she responded, pondering her remark. “I didn’t really know Ruth but she seemed like the Wonder Woman type.”

She really was. And to me, she always will be.

Rest in light, my friend.

Tamara