Rose Popeniuk was born in November 1925 to Peter and Anna Popeniuk in Coleman, Alta. Her parents immigrated from the Ukraine, with her father arriving first and then working as a coal miner to save up money to bring Anna to Canada, who arrived in Calgary on Jan. 1, 1925. Rose was born 10 months after she arrived.
Rose remembers her early childhood in a two-room shack, which Peter had worked hard to obtain for his family. She remembers her father as a warm and loving man who used to sit her on his lap and tell her stories. When she was around nine years old, she wanted to learn how to play the piano, but her father convinced her to learn the mandolin, as it was more affordable.
“Everybody who is anybody plays piano,” she says. Nearly nine decades later, Rose still plays the mandolin.
Rose graduated early, at just 15 years old, and attended teacher’s college in Calgary the year after. She taught in a number of small farming communities in rural Alberta, in one-room classrooms, which she says was a challenge at first. She learned how to work with the students to improve their learning, rather than just lecturing the class. This is a skill she would apply to teaching for the rest of her career.
While visiting Coleman on a holiday, she ran into Bob Watson at the theatre. The two had met in her teenage years, and courted but they lost contact after he went into the army and she started her career. He was sharply dressed in his uniform when he approached her, and she remembers thinking, “they fed you well and exercised you lots.”
The two promised to keep in touch when he returned to Europe, as World War Two had begun. They were married on Sept. 29, 1944, while he was on leave to care for his ailing mother and she was waiting for school to re-open. He proposed to her on a Wednesday, and they married that Friday, and that evening, his mother passed on.
After the war ended in 1945, Bob stayed in Europe to help the clean up effort. A month before he returned in January 1946, Rose gave birth to their first child, Arthur. She had two daughters, Nici, born in 1952, and Beth, who was born two years later.
The Watson family settled in Lethbridge, and Bob was working as a delivery driver for a Calgary-based bread company. When his work ended, Bob heard of similar work in Fernie, and they moved here in August 1954. Rose was not eager to move, as she liked Lethbridge, but after the first snowfall, she fell in love with Fernie.
“The snow was falling straight down,” she remembers, “In Alberta, it blows horizontally. I was enthralled with the fact that there was no wind and I’ve been loving it ever since.”
Rose began substituting for the local schools, and taught a variety of ages and subjects, including physical education, before settling in with high school math, teaching grades 9 to 11. Rose was active in the community and was a founding member with the Snow Valley Wranglers. She was also active with the Arts Council and the local weaving guild. She remembers it as “a party time.”
“Something was always happening,” she says. “Anything was an excuse for a party.”
After retiring in 1981, she opened a studio in her house to the west of Fernie to pursue her passion of weaving. They also raised sheep to produce their own wool, so it could go “right from the sheep to the wall.”
After living in Fernie for 62 years, she is in love with the town and thinks it has something special to offer.
“I love it because I see young people picking up and working towards a goal now,” she says. “They are doing things. They are making this community sizzle.” And as a piece of parting advice, Rose advocates for socializing.
“Find a reason, any reason, to have a party. That’s what makes everything worthwhile.”
Her commitment to strengthening her community over the years has made Rose into a fabulous storyteller. This is what makes her a special “Face of the Valley.”