All of his life Rick Mills has lived with knowledge of the impact his mother Violet Mills had on the community of Niagara-on-the-Lake. He would be reminded of it in the most unlikely of settings.
“Kids would call her out in the grocery store,” he remembers of the long-time swimming instructor who passed away last year at 85. “She was once at the check-out at valu-mart, and a family was in another check-out. The mother said to her daughter ‘there’s Mrs. Mills’, and her daughter said ‘oh, I didn’t recognize her with her clothes on’.”
The young lady could be forgiven, as for 45 years Vi, as she has always been known, made her impact while wearing her swimsuit. Generation after generation learned to swim under her tutelage as an instructor and pool manager.
About 30 family members gathered at the Memorial Park pool Sunday for the unveiling of a new plaque honouring the lifelong NOTL resident, who also served the town as a leader in the Scouting movement in the 1960s and 1970s.
“It’s an honour,” Mills said Sunday. “As a family we’re grateful that the town would acknowledge her in this way. When she passed, we were being contacted by people from throughout the world. Mom was an example and support to hundreds, more likely thousands of people.”
Vi lived just around the corner from what was originally called the Niagara Pool when it opened in 1967. Rick remembers his mother being there with him for the ribbon-cutting way back then, and her subsequently joining him there often to offer safety reminders.
A short few years later, she became an instructor, and the family’s life began to revolve around the pool in the summer months.
Lord Mayor Betty Disero and others spoke of Vi managing the pool and offering lessons, and beyond that, of her mission to instil respect for the water and its power to all of her charges. Rick spoke of how he, his mother and later his son Alexander were all involved as lifeguards in incidents where they had to rescue distressed swimmers.
“Many of her children and grandchildren also served, and still do, as water safety instructors,” he related in his speech Sunday. “My wife Cathy also managed the Niagara pools for 30 years. We started dating here as lifeguards in 1976. And today, her (Vi’s) granddaughter Rebecca Saylor is a manager as well.”
For Rebecca, following in Vi’s footsteps is a special honour.
“I grew up in these pools,” Saylor said. “I’d been a guard here, so I worked for her. Part of it seemed like a natural progression. I can’t imagine a summer not being connected to these pools.”
Once Vi left, Saylor said, she was grateful to still have that connection to the pool for all the family members.
Saylor thinks of her mentor each and every day.
“Last summer was our first without her,” she said. “Her handwriting is still on the file folders in the filing cabinet. Every time I teach a swimming lesson there will be something I say that I first heard from her.”
Former Lord Mayor, regional councillor and current town councillor Gary Burroughs was credited for bringing forward the motion last year to honour Vi with the plaque.
“Clearly, my family has been affected greatly by her,” Burroughs told The Local. “My daughter, who now lives in Calgary, she and her two kids learned to swim with Vi, and my daughter in Oakville and her two boys learned with Vi.”
The beloved swimming instructor continued in her role at the pool until the year she turned 80. Rick remembers his mother considering retirement a few years before that.
“Probably the last five years, she would say ‘maybe this year’,” he said. “And then she got 80 in her crosshairs. I was waiting for her to say ‘okay, one more’,” but once she had decided on 80, that was it.”
For his part, Burroughs can’t recall the town ever having any thought of forcing retirement on her.
“If Vi wanted to teach, she would teach,” Burroughs claims. “I know the rules
today are different. With Vi, it was the respect for her
and what she could continue to accomplish.”
Fittingly, manager of parks and recreation Kevin Turcotte chose a blue and white beach towel to hide the plaque before revealing it. Though it sat on an easel for the ceremony, it will soon be installed in the foyer area of the Memorial Park pool.
It’s a perfect tribute to someone who for so many years had an impact on the community, treating all children as if they were her own.
“She raised her family here,” granddaughter Saylor said. “She lived in that house since she was a teenager, attended St. Mark’s Church and was part of the choir there. She was the first female Citizen of the Year (in 1969). She was such a large part of Niagara-
Generations more will soon have the chance to reflect upon the legacy of Vi Mills every time they enter into the Memorial Park pool.