To celebrate its 80th birthday, the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver held a gala in the Grand Pacific Ballroom last night (May 9), with live music, cocktails and elaborate food stations, and a nod to a woman who could be the oldest living former employee of the iconic downtown property.
Norma Walker travelled from Tacoma, Washington for the big bash, just a few days after her own birthday, when she turned 96.
In an interview with the Georgia Straight, Walker—who was born and raised in small house in South Vancouver in 1923—recalled being hired at the hotel at age 21 in 1944, five years after it opened. She had been working at a bank before that.
“After high school, I started working in the bank right away; the war was on and banks were hiring,” she says. “The boys would come in in their uniforms and look so nice. So many were killed. It was just sickening. The ones I graduated with and the ones I worked with in the bank, too.”
After a few years, however, she quit because of the poor working conditions.
“It was lousy pay and long hours—I missed more good dates,” Walker says with a laugh. “I quit, and within three weeks I was working at Hotel Vancouver.”
She was the food comptroller, getting to and from work via streetcar and doing bookkeeping out of an office on the hotel’s first floor. Every day, cleaning staff placed fresh flowers and ice water on her desk.
Walker she remembers eating baron of beef at the hotel cafeteria with her husband and having lunch (often the salad bar) with the hotel nurse. She spent time with some of the “elevator girls”, women in uniform who operated the lifts, and, although staff weren’t allowed to go to the Panorama Roof socially, she has memories of attending the hot spot for a work function and seeing king of swing Dal Richards and his band play.
Because the hotel was then run by Canadian Pacific Railway and Canadian National Railway, she could take the train for discounted rates; twice, she went to Toronto and back.
“It was a wonderful place to work,” Walker says. “The hours, the pay; everybody was friendly and nice; even the bellboys from down below. When I left, they all chipped in for wedding presents and they had a party in the salon.”
Walker worked at the hotel for four years, having moved to Washington State after she got married. She and her late husband, George, who passed away two years ago, were together for 68 years and had two daughters.
She still has the small Hotel Vancouver area rug that her mom purchased for her during the time she spent there. “It’s starting to get worn out, just like me,” she says with a chuckle.
The former ice skater, golfer, tennis player, and violin player also remember the day she left, when her coworkers gave her a red sash that they had all signed as a keepsake. On her visit to Vancouver for the hotel’s 80th, upon getting into her room, she found a photo of the hotel Vancouver, signed by many of its current employees.
“I don’t know them, but they all signed something nice for my birthday,” she says. “That’s just the kind of place it is.”
The hotel's director of operations gave a nod to Walker during a short speech at the event. She is to have a private tour of the hotel and see her old office space before going back to Tacoma.
The hotel’s 80th birthday celebration featured food stations including Iberico ham, pecorino cheese with warm honey dripping on top of it from above (“liquid from the heavens”), freshly shucked oysters, lobster rolls, fried-chicken sandwiches, spring rolls, house-made donuts, marshmallows, lemon-and-white-chocolate popsicles, hand-rolled caramels, and more, along with cocktails and other libations. Vancouver’s multipiece band Famous Players played live, the singers and musicians dressed to the nines in black sequins.
As another way to mark its milestone birthday, the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver is also offering a special anniversary afternoon tea service at its restaurant, Notch8, until September.