FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Pamela Hilton
September 27, 2016
This could easily be a many-pages story of ancestors she delights talking about – but I was wanting more, for purposes of this interview, to focus on Pamela Hilton, to learn what makes her tick. She was more than forthcoming.
She paints full time these days – for fun, and for profit, “Out of my heart. I love vibrant colours”. The view from her studio on a sunny autumn afternoon is an awesome palate …
The neighbourhood where her father's family, the Woodalls, had their Glamorgan Ranch – was named for Glamorganshire, from family haunts in Wales – and the shopping centre of same name was developed by her father. Midnapore was chosen as a new name for that town south of Calgary because the mail kept getting messed up – so her grandfather Samuel Shaw blindfolded his oldest daughter Helen, who then put a pin in the map … “Midnapore, India”. She points out the ‘feathers’ from the Prince of Wales, presented to her great-grandfather Shaw – one of Calgary’s early hoteliers who operated the Wales Hotel (where Scotia Centre sits now), and shows me pictures of where her great-grandfather R. C. Thomas dredged a lagoon to create an ice business in Bowness (now site of Alazhar Temple’s horse arena).
Her mother was a Tegert from B.C., then came to Calgary. On the other side, ‘two rail cars’ of furnishings and possessions crossed the ocean, crossed Canada to Winnipeg – then oxcarts to Swift Current, then on to the banks of Fish Creek to establish Shaw Woollen Mills. Her great grandfather was an organist, chemist, operated the area’s first telegraph - and great stories kept pouring, as did the coffee, and time flew …
How did this connection, this interview, start? Twice I’ve attended functions at the Southern Alberta Pioneers Memorial Building [Pamela is a director, current president – and has been actively involved as a volunteer since 1984] – the most recent this June. High up in Mission on a quiet street stands a building filled with photos and memorabilia of Calgary and Southern Alberta’s history - it is a place worth visiting, or booking for an event. I picked up a brochure and began exploring ‘who to contact’. I heard back promptly from staff wanting to facilitate my booking … but I wanted to learn more from the Pres. … soon I was communicating with their President Pamela Hilton. A few re-schedules later, I was driving across grassy plains to drink coffee and snack on fresh baked cookies, and explore her world.
Her studio, as most rooms in her home do, looks out from top of bank, down a ravine to the Bow River. Painter? Yes. Horse-breeder, trainer, golfer, Shriners/Daughters of the Nile, traveler, built and sold travel agencies, descendant of famous hoteliers? Yes, all of those, born and raised in Calgary – descendant of pioneers who left upper-class lives in England to build our City, yes, this is Pamela Hilton! … not from that Hilton hotel family, but from some of Calgary’s earliest shakers and movers.
Stories roll out of her – in part from pride, in part because she’s a great story teller – and because a conversation turned into a walk, not down memory lane, but down history lane. Her grandparents and great grandparents were hoteliers, commercial building developers and purveyors of block ice before electricity was here.
In ‘the beginning’, she was born in Calgary – her grandparents were Shaws and Woodalls. She grew up here, third of five children. Growing up there was always a rural place to go (dad had a ranch opposite what is now Priddis Greens golf course), hobby farms and horse places and a house in the city. She started riding at six – did some jumping and has continued to polish her boots and have horses in her life.
Pamela graduated from Western Canada High, Henderson’s Business College and leapt into the travel agency business. In early days she was operating Marlin Travel at the Bay, variations followed with Burritt Travel, Jarvis Travel – in Calgary. Then she moved to Edmonton, then back to Calgary agfain where she founded and successfully grew Hilton Travel from one agent to more than 150 agents. She sold out to Intra Travel and retired from the industry in 2006. “I loved it.” But she’s not the retiring kind … founding Whitehawk Ranch in 2002, where she set about raising and training champions. Most walls in her home are adorned with century-and-a-half old furniture and her landscape oil paintings, but one wall and trophy display is adorned with first-prize ribbons and photos of four-legged accomplishments. I joked that she should either get an even bigger house or start a gallery. She indicated that while she does sell her work to people who like it, she has no appetite for taking commissioned work or opening a gallery – and as our conversation continued, clearly a gallery operation wouldn’t fit her travel schedule and lifestyle, one she seems to really enjoy and have earned. Golf, winters in Palm Springs and an urge to travel more.
Divorced (“we met at 15, married at 19"), and then remarried, she has two sons and together with partner Del Huber [retired Firehall Captain – they met via minor hockey organization work] – they have four children and enough grandchildren, 11, to start a softball team.
Why are you successful? “Lots of good timing. Because I keep believing the next best thing is around the corner – so you can’t give up. Attitude is so important. They are ALL good days … and some are better.”
What has held you back? “Time. I need more time. And I would like to get a university education … .”
Of horses, travel, painting, business development – seems she echoes the lessons of her ancestors when she says, “start with a hobby – doing things you love.”
“My plan in life is always to be happy – I’ve done very well, I’ve worked hard all my life – I’ve had all the components you need.” She acknowledges her situation – coming from her family background of some wealth and privilege as being “socially well situated”. She’s modest but not shy, classy and smart – that’s what I learned one afternoon …
How do you see your business – historic resources – going forward over the next quarter?
… we are entering into a new phase this October with changes on our board. I’m moving into the Past-President role. We have a board of eight plus an executive of four – so 12, plus our staff. We enjoy a great partnership with the City of Calgary and look forward to expanding our program content. We celebrate our 97th Annual Roundup on November 5th.
And over the next five years?
… we’ve been around for nearly 100 years. We are looking at getting ‘oral histories’ recorded from those who won’t be around much longer. We are digitizing and preserving more material than ever so it won’t be lost. Technology is helping lots. Our message needs to be that Calgary and Southern Alberta’s history belongs to everyone here and is worth preserving.
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… they need to ‘hit the same notes’ I do, have an understanding – people I know, like and trust. Which isn’t to say I haven’t been burnt …
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Pamela Hilton, and why do they do business with you, why have they hired you, over your competitors?
… because I’ve been the best person for the job! I’m passionate about what I’m doing. And I’m a perfect volunteer – because I don’t always understand the question!
How would you describe your leadership/management style?
… I think I’ve always been ‘open to suggestions’, it’s important to have others’ viewpoints. But, always in business, the buck stops right here!
… oh yes!
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… I’m worried a lot about the world right now. People are forgetting how to be compassionate and forgiving. We all have to listen more …
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… my mom and dad, and my dad’s mother – she was strong and vibrant. She died at 95, you never have enough time with people like that. Calgary Minor Hockey was a great influence in terms of skills, organization and networking – meeting people who helped me lots in my early business ventures.
… I like to golf (index is 24) but I’ve been coming off a shoulder injury. Everything in my life is fun – kids, grandkids, horses, dogs.
What do you read?
… fantasies, Spanish civil war. I read a lot … love to escape. I read a lot when we are in Palm Springs each winter.
… 2014 Mercedes GL 350. And I have a truck that pulls my horse trailer. She also admits to a seldom driven treasure under-tarp, that never sees snow, a baby-blue ’77 Mercedes SL.
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