Meet the Character: Barbara Cass-Beggs An Accomplished Life, Part 3

The journey had begun innocently enough. Barbara Cass-Beggs and her husband, David, decided to go to Canada for a year while he served as a guest lecturer in electrical engineering at the University of Toronto. They sailed with their 3-year-old daughter, Rosemary, aboard Athenia from Liverpool, England, Sept. 2, 1939. The next day, Great Britain and Germany declared war, and less than ten hours later, a German U-boat torpedoed Athenia (see Barbara Cass-Beggs, An Accomplished Life, Part 2, Nov. 15, 2014).

Separated from Rosemary while abandoning ship, Barbara and David spent an anxious three weeks before reuniting with their daughter in Toronto. They gave no thought of returning to England during the remainder of the war, and found Canada’s more egalitarian society so much to their liking that they remained for another six years after the war. During this period both their careers began to blossom.

David completed his year as a guest lecturer then found work in Canada’s defense industry designing the control systems for a centrifuge that allowed human subjects to simulate the tremendous forces fighter pilots experienced during combat flight maneuvers. His work helped technicians design protective gear for pilots to prevent blackouts.

In 1941, Barbara gave birth to twins, Michael and Ruth. When not busy raising three young children, she organized music programs for employees at an aircraft factory. During this time, Barbara and David became active in liberal politics, giving all their spare time and efforts to the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) (now known as the New Democratic Party), the Canadian equivalent to Britain’s Labour Party. It would be a life-long affiliation.

Barbara’s love of music remained a central element of her life. After the war she taught music and worked with youth as director of the University Settlement Music School in Toronto. David began consulting with the Saskatchewan Power Corp. (SPC) and the provincial CCF government to conduct a feasibility study for bringing electricity to farms in rural areas. During this period, the family spent many summers in Regina, the capital of Saskatchewan, and Barbara began collecting Canadian folksongs to use in her teaching.

In 1952 the family returned to the British Isles for David to lead the electrical engineering department of a university in Wales. Three years later the couple returned to Canada when the Saskatchewan government asked David to become general manager of the Power Corporation. The twins joined them in Regina but Rosemary, now a young woman of 19, stayed in England to begin her university studies at Oxford, earning a degree in Philosophy and Psychology.

Back in Canada, Barbara taught music at the Regina Conservatory for nine years and founded the Saskatchewan Junior Concert Society, which supported tours by major classical artists to give concerts for school children. During this time she also began writing down her teaching philosophy regarding music and young children.

In 1968, David joined Canada’s Science Council and he and Barbara moved to the nation’s capital in Ottawa. There Barbara initiated music courses at Algonquin College for teachers of pre-school children. Her devotion to teaching musical awareness and development in very young children coalesced into a program Barbara called To Listen, To Like, To Learn. She presented papers at conferences and initiated training programs that introduced her techniques to other cities in Canada, then internationally at conferences in Tel Aviv and Vienna. Barbara published several books on her teaching methods and was widely recognized and honored for her innovative efforts.

David was subsequently hired to lead the state-owned power utilities in Manitoba and later in British Columbia, before retiring in 1975. He died in 1986, and Barbara passed away in Ottawa four years later in September of 1990, at age 85. Each one left behind a rich legacy, David in rural electrification and Barbara in music education, to the benefit of millions of Canadians; legacies that could have been lost on that first evening of World War 2 when Athenia was torpedoed.

Thomas Sanger View more

Thomas C. Sanger is a journalist and author residing in San Diego, CA with his wife, author Kay Sanger. His forthcoming novel, Without Warning, is a historical novel about the British passenger ship Athenia, which was attacked by a German submarine only a few hours after England declared war on Germany at the start of World War II in 1939.


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