Core of Community: Mary Dillabaugh, Almonte

In this series of articles, titled ‘Core of Community’, Millstone columnist Arnie Francis profiles citizens of Mississippi Mills who embody the spirit of community building.

When WWII broke out William Hood, then too young to enlist, lied about his age and joined the Royal Canadian Army. He was deployed to England before his parents found out he was gone! Meanwhile Mary Fullbrook, a new British Army nursing recruit, was beginning her military service. William and Mary met in the mess hall of the same base in England where they were stationed. In those uncertain times, William Hood proposed to Mary Fullbrook and they married in short order. “War brides”, like Mary Hood, usually married in uniform, but William would have none of it, preferring to have his bride wear a dress! Shortly thereafter the Hoods became parents, naming their first child after her mother. Little Mary Hood was born in England in July 1946.

Cradled in her mother’s arms, barely five months old, Mary arrived by ship to Halifax and then travelled by train to Montreal. After the end of the war her father returned to Montreal with his army regiment where soldiers were duly discharged. William Hood began his civilian work life with his father, looking after the local cemetery in Huntington Quebec. He also helped his parents run their bed and breakfast. A few years later the Hood family relocated to Ottawa, where young Mary went to school and graduated from Glebe Collegiate, growing into a community minded young woman.

In 1975 Mary married David Dillabaugh, a federal public servant. The Dillabaughs began their own family and within two years they moved to Almonte – the small, “friendly town” – which satisfied their dream of raising their family in community. It was important for David that they would know their neighbours and that Mary would be able to grocery shop easily for the family and walk the children to school. The family grew happily. First Sherri, then Cynthia, then Sarah and lastly David Jr. In the late 1970’s and 1980’s the times were a-changing all across Canada. The Dillabaughs maintained highly traditional family roles: the children waved goodbye to their father every morning as he headed to his job in Ottawa, and settled into their day with Mom at home in Almonte!

The four Dillabaugh children all went to Naismith Memorial Public School (NMPS), named after Dr. James Naismith, famed inventor of basketball and one-time Almonte resident. Almonte and District High School (ADHS) – just a short walk from their home – became the launching pad for each of the young Dillabaughs. St. Mary’s Elementary School, (which used to be behind Holy Name of Mary Catholic Church), was a focal point for Mary and her eldest daughter who attended Girl Guides there in the evening. Both NMPS and ADHS were built at a time when schools were seen as the hub of the neighbourhood and integral to the larger community.

Guiding played an important part in the lives of Mary’s daughters; they progressed from Sparks to Brownies to Guides. As a result, Mary heard the “call to service” and became a volunteer with the Girl Guides of Canada. In the intervening 33 years, Mary advanced from being a unit leader, to Almonte District Commissionaire, Kintail Division Commissionaire and Treasurer, with her many years of service often recognized by the Girl Guides Ontario Council. Now she volunteers with the 2nd Almonte Sparks Unit. According to Mary, these vibrant 5- and 6-year olds “keep her feeling young and…” she quips, “imagine… there are no-o-o secrets!” Of course, there are those legendary Girl Guide Cookies – 35 boxes at a time to be carted into the house then back out again, with help from husband David! While Guiding has undoubtedly made a positive impact on the lives of so many girls in this community, Mary admits that today it is a greater challenge to encourage girls to join the Guiding movement, with so many activities and options open to families.

Some six years ago, Mary was “graduating” from the Almonte General Hospital’s day-hospital program after a health set-back when she was asked if she would like to volunteer. She admits to having trouble declining worthy volunteer work, so she agreed to help out. In April 2015 AGH-FVM President and CEO Mary Wilson Trider presented Mary Dillabaugh with the Guardian Angel Pin in recognition of her volunteer work, noting “Mary is a committed and reliable volunteer who makes that extra effort to make a difference in someone’s life and has the best interest of our organization at heart.“ Mary, in fact, sees the AGH-FVM as “her” hospital, passionate about the sense of family that exists at the Almonte General Hospital, as opposed to the city hospitals where she feels like a number. Paul Virgin, the former Chair of AGH-FVM Board, said in June 2016 that the AGH-FVM’s “volunteer group is without a doubt second to none. Currently headed by Mary Dillabaugh … this organization continues to operate like a well-oiled machine.” The same message was reiterated by Kelly Bowles, Recreational Therapist at the Almonte General Hospital-Fairview Manor (AGH-FVM), who told the Millstone, “Mary is a caring soul that embodies pure sunshine everywhere she goes. She is always at the ready when called upon, and is a valued member of our Volunteer membership here at AGH/FVM.”

Not a person to harbour regrets, Mary confided that she was not able to achieve her dream of following her mother’s and her grandmother’s careers in nursing. Others would argue that in many ways her volunteer work at the Almonte General Hospital, with seniors, with residents at the Rosamond Wing and with day-hospital clients effectively places her in an equally important space for the people whose hearts she touches.

In the days before children, Mary and David travelled extensively throughout Canada and the USA, with occasional visits to the UK. Now she is content staying put in Almonte, as her children and seven grandchildren in the area sustain her. Mary still maintains a fondness for the place of her birth and in particular for the British Royal Family. She sees the Queen – a lady of strong will and family orientation – as a good example and role model for women everywhere. In some ways we muse that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II reflects the sentiment… in 2002 Mary Dillabaugh was awarded the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal, the Medal awarded to Canadians who made outstanding and exemplary contributions to their communities or to Canada as a whole in the first 50 years of the Queen’s reign. The award focuses on the achievements of people who have helped create the Canada of today.

Mary, and the many volunteers we are lucky to have in our community, go quietly about their work encouraging, praising and celebrating the achievements of others, whether it is in the empowerment of young girls in Girl Guides or in the restoration to health of seniors in care. Mary Dillabaugh makes a truly exemplary contribution!