A Tribute to Eunice McCormack: The Case of the Missing Avard Coin

This column, unlike many others, is not based on a single interview. Eunice McCormack has, since the beginning of this column, been one of my major sources of information on local history.

Whenever I reach a roadblock on a topic, more often than not, it is to Eunice that I turn for help. She has yet to fail me; and if she does not know the exact answer, I can count on her to point me in the right direction. Todays Case of the Missing Avard Coin is but one example.

Born in Sackville on November 9, 1905, Eunice (Dixon) McCormack was the daughter of J. L. and Louise (Avard) Dixon. She can therefore trace her ancestry to Charles and Suzanna (Coates) Dixon, 1772 Yorkshire immigrants who were among the founders of Sackville.

During a long and active life, Eunice graduated from Mount Allison and taught at Mount Allison Academy; later marrying Major Waldo McCormack in 1932. He was for many years coach and athletic director at Mount Allison. They had one daughter, Marjorie, now a retired school teacher. Today, she and Eunice share a home on Charles Street.

When I drop in to see her, Eunice is usually seated in her favourite arm chair, with a view overlooking Dixons Pond, home to numerous waterfowl. A pair of binoculars and a birding field guide, provide clues to one of her major hobbies. Last winter she and Marjorie took a trip to Sheffield Mills in Nova Scotias Annapolis Valley. Their mission was to bird watch in this well known habitat of the bald eagle.

They were rewarded with a number of spectacular sightings, one of which was attributable to Eunice, since her daughter was driving. As she explained: I spotted a lone bald eagle such a beautiful sight seeing this magnificent bird doing acrobatics It made the long trip worthwhile.

One does not have to ask Eunice McCormack the secret of a long life. It’s evident the first time you meet her; and is reflected in a warm and welcoming smile, a genuine interest in others and a willingness to share memories of a fascinating lifetime. As she modestly puts it: I try to keep busy and out of mischief.

Another example of her joie de vivre took place when a visitor to the McCormacks arrived on a motorcycle. Jokingly, he asked her: Eunice, have you ever ridden a motorcycle? No, she replied. But Ive always wanted to. Their subsequent ride was, to say the least, an achievement for someone 90+ years young. Now to the case of the missing Avard coin.

During one of my visits, I mentioned having spent part of that day on research in the Mount Allison Archives. Eunice asked me: Have you ever come across any information concerning the Avard Coin? It was given to Mount Allison for safekeeping. This was a totally new topic to me, and sensing a story, I asked Eunice for details.

Her maternal ancestors, the Avards, came originally from near St. Austell in Cornwall, England. Like many others of their day, they were converted to Methodism by Evangelist Rev. John Wesley (17031791). After moving about in England, they later emigrated, first to Prince Edward Island, then to New Brunswick. Prior to leaving England, a young son of Joseph Avard and Frances Ivey Avard was given a coin as a souvenir by John Wesley. This relic, carefully preserved in the family was, according to Eunice, eventually placed in Mount Allison Academy for safekeeping.

On my next visit to the Archives I made some inquiries re the Avard coin. Archivist Cheryl Ennals and her assistant Donna Beal were completely baffled. Neither had heard of such a gift. A search of the Acquisitions File revealed no trace of the donation of a coin. At the time, I was preoccupied with other matters and did not pursue the story of the now missing coin.

A few days later, I met Eunice at the VON Walking Club. Her first question was; Bill, have you found out any more information on the Avard coin? I explained my fruitless search. She then opened her purse and pulled out a note. Heres a reference for you. It will provide some details concerning the coin. The note read: See Wesleyan Magazine, Vol. IV, September 1845, p.121, Memoir of Mrs. Frances Avard. I thanked her, and said Im going to the library later today, Ill look it up.

Soon, I was seated at a microfilm reader, scrolling through the Wesleyan. June, July, August all went whizzing by but no September. What was wrong? Then the truth dawned. The September issue was obviously missing when the microfilming was completed. How could I find documentation for the story? Or was it possibly just another family legend? Knowing Eunice, I could not believe the latter.

The next day, I was in the Maritime Conference Archives and mentioned my problem to Archivist Judith Colwell. She responded: That microfilm was based on copies of the Wesleyan found in the Victoria University Library. Weve a set of originals in our vault. Ill see what is out there. Back she came with the bound volume for 1845 containing the September issue!

Not only that, Eunices reference was accurate in every detail. The article was a long one, written by Frances Ivey Avards disconsolate husband, [Joseph Avard] in the eighty-fifth year of his age. It traced the family history from Cornwall to Bristol, then the Channel Islands and eventually Sackville, NB.

Joseph Avard wrote: My wife was often favored with receiving her quarterly ticket and also the bread and wine from the hands of the venerable Mr. Wesley. On one of these occasions, she took one of her sons with her to class. After the meeting was ended Mr. Wesley entered into conversation with them He put his hand in his pocket and made the boy a present of a small piece of money, which has been kept in the family for fifty four years. It is now to be placed in the Wesleyan Academy in memory of the giver, Reverend John Wesley.

Later, on another visit, Eunice explained how she happened to have a copy of this important article. Once, while chatting with the then Mount Allison President Dr. George J. Trueman, he said Eunice, I know that you are interested in family history. I have an extra copy of the Wesleyan which tells the story of the Avard family. Id like you to have it.

However, one mystery remained. The existence of the coin was verified, and the gift to the Wesleyan Academy documented. But what happened to the coin?

At the time, Eunice and I were discussing the disastrous fire of March 1, 1933 when the old Academy building was burned to the ground. [See Flashback for December 5, 2001] It seemed logical to conclude that any details concerning the donation, and the coin itself, were probably lost in the fire.

A final postscript to this story. Last Christmas I received a gift from Dr. Fred Armstrong, a former colleague at the University of Western Ontario. Knowing my interest in urban history, he sent along a copy of his recent book on the Ivey family of London, Ontario. The internationally famous Ivey School of Business Administration marks this familys generous support of Western.

While reading the introductory chapter on Ivey family history, some details leaped off the page. The Iveys and Avards came from the same part of Cornwall. Both were converts to Methodism. Mrs. Joseph Avard was an Ivey; while another family member was named Ivey Avard.

Moreover, there were a number of interesting similarities in the story of these two important Cornish families. Later generations of both exhibited a strong entrepreneurial bent and achieved success in the business life of Canada. The Avard family, as well as the Iveys, were also strong supporters of post secondary education. In this context, note the Avard-Dixon Building on the Mount Allison campus.

Perhaps it is safe to conclude, that while the Wesley/Avard coin may have been lost; it paid a good dividend.