“Looking back, I think that my successes have come from being willing and eager to grasp new opportunities without being tied to the outcome,” says Danda Humphreys, author of Government Street: Victoria’s Heritage Mile. The idea of authoring a book came to Danda when she was researching and writing a weekly column for the Times Colonist about the people Victoria’s streets were named after.
When folks asked her to show them where Fort Victoria once stood, or how to find a certain building, she became excited about public interest in the city’s history and, as a result, in 1997, published her first of five heritage books.
Born in Cheshire, England, Danda lived in six different cities in the British Isles before she moved to Canada. Having begun a career in nursing in England, she did post-graduate training in cancer nursing, research and therapy, worked as a university health nurse, a nurse in National Blood Transfusion Service, as sister-in-charge of a Terminal Care Unit and as State Registered Nurse/sales manager for a pharmaceutical company.
In 1970, while still in England, Danda decided to change careers and become a journalist. She began studying at the London School of Economics, “at the same time Mick Jagger was a student there,” while also working at Macmillan Journals’ Nursing Times magazine.
After receiving her National Union of Journalists Press Card, she worked as a healthcare reporter for various magazines and journals and writer/editor for Planned Parenthood UK for a short time.
In late 1972, with $100 in her pocket and a few dollars in the bank, Danda made an impulsive decision to immigrate to Canada. She packed all her worldly belonging in five trunks and seven suitcases and, with her ukulele-banjo, boarded the Stefan Batory, a Polish ship used to transport children evacuees from England to Canada during WWII.
“I knew very little about Canada,” says Danda. “One of the trunks contained a big jar of Nescafé instant coffee, in case no one [in Canada] had heard of it.”
With only a handful of English-speaking passengers on board (other passengers comprised about 600 people from Poland, which was still under communist rule, and 100 Germans), Danda played her ukulele-banjo in the Lounge Bar every night leading pub-style sing-songs.
“In that surreal middle-of-the-ocean environment,” says Danda, “I gave little thought to where our ship was taking us. In fact, we were having such a good time that when we finally reached Montreal; I was quite disappointed that we had stopped.”
From Montreal, Danda took a train to Toronto, the centre for publishing in Canada. Her $100 had dwindled to $34, so she stayed at Union Station with her belongings for five days until she found an ad for a book editor in the Toronto Star. The new job allowed Danda to move out of Union Station and into a furnished room. In addition, she found work as a proofreader with a graphic arts company before she moved on to managing editor of Manulife News and freelancing.
Four years later, Danda left Manulife to freelance full time, writing for magazines, journals, health agencies and the Ontario Science Centre as a science writer/editor. During that time, she also became involved in community theatre and radio at CJRT (Ryerson) doing twice daily live broadcasts and special interviews.
Looking for something new again in May 1982, with her worldly belongings and a budgie bird in a cage, Danda drove across the country to Vancouver. She picked up her first job by reading a copy of Equity magazine in a newspaper shop. Noting the typos, she called the editor. As a result, she ended up proofreading every issue of Equity along with Pacific Yachting, BC, Outdoors and others.
In Vancouver, Danda also worked for the Arthritis Centre as media communications co-ordinator and writer for the Public Relations Department of Vancouver General Hospital and international conference proceedings editor for the centre for HIV/AIDS at St. Paul’s Hospital.
A new venture in 1988 took Danda to Auckland, New Zealand to work with an international publishing company, but a year later, she returned to Vancouver to become managing editor of the BC Medical Journal, published by the BC medical association.
Reinventing herself once more in 1993, Danda joined a business partner to provide public speaking and preparation skills training in the corporate environment, where she worked with many major business organizations in downtown Vancouver and for UBC Executive Programs.
Two years later, Danda moved to Victoria and, once again, changed careers. She managed Anne Hathaway’s Cottage at the Olde England Inn, while writing a script, and hiring and training six tour guides for the cottage’s 365-days-a-year operation.
When the Inn closed in 2000, Danda became a tour guide on a Royal Blue Line open-top double-decker bus that showed Victoria to tourists and visitors from a unique top-deck vantage point. At the same time, she was writing a weekly column for the Victoria Times Colonist, the Islander, and later the Monitor, Focus Magazine and now for Homes and Living magazine.
The proudest moment of Danda’s career came in November 1997 when Heritage House published On the Street Where You Live, Volume I, Pioneer Pathways of Early Victoria, a hard-cover coffee table book. On the Street Where you Live, Volumes II and III were launched in 2000 and 2001, followed by Building Victoria: Men, Myths and Mortar, all of which preceded her most recent Government Street, Victoria’s Heritage Mile, written to commemorate 150 years of Victoria’s incorporation as a city. The book illustrates how Victoria developed from Fort and Government Streets up to Chinatown, back down to the Inner Harbour and right through to the waterfront at Dallas Road. Included are stories about people who lived and worked along Government Street in the early days – gold miners, the city’s first mayor, the American Blacks who came to find land and freedom under the British flag, Robert Service, the bank employee who later found fame and fortune as a bard of the Yukon and others.
Over the years, Danda has volunteered with the Crisis Line, the Old Cemeteries Society, Recreation Integration Victoria, facilitated a low-vision reading group with a James Bay Community Project and volunteered as a reader at Beacon Hill Villa. Today, she volunteers as an usher at the Belfry Theatre as well as on stage and off stage at Langham Court Theatre. With her partner, each Christmas Day, Danda serves dinner at James Bay New Horizons. “One of the best things about volunteering,” she says, “is you get to learn new things for free!”
Researching and writing take up a lot of time, says Danda, but each fall, she tries to start learning something new. “This year it’s English Handbells at James Bay New Horizons” and Celtic Harp at Monterey Centre. An enthusiastic bicycle rider, “for commuting rather than for fitness, although one tends to lead to the other,” Danda knows all the back roads and all the flat roads.
A tour guide trainer, professional speaker and an historical storyteller, Danda takes pre-booked groups through Victoria’s historic downtown, Chinatown, Inner Harbour and Emily Carr’s James Bay neighbourhood.
She finds new challenges exciting. “Sometimes I think we short change ourselves by not trying new things, going to new places, having something different for dinner on Sunday nights,” says Danda. “My motto is, if a new and exciting opportunity appears in front of you, grab it and go. Enjoy every minute along the way.”
Danda’s books, including Government Street, are available in bookstores in Victoria and bookstores up-Island. For more information about Danda, her books and “Step Back in Time” walks, talks and tours, please visit www.dandahumphreys.com
DECEMBER 2012 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE
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