Hard work doesn’t kill anyone, says Leaside centenarian Millie Umahara

Millie and Iona.
Millie and Iona. Photo By Janis Fertuck.

Long-time Leaside resident and CNIB employee Millie Umehara became a centenarian on April 10. A party was held in her honour at the CNIB on Bayview Ave.

Millie grew up on a farm in Oak Ridges, but gradually lost her sight in her 20s as a result of retinitis pigmentosa. A home teacher from the CNIB taught her Braille as well as home and personal management skills. Millie was such a good student that she moved to Toronto in 1949 to take the training as a home teacher herself at the CNIB, which was located downtown on Beverley St. at the time. Home teachers, or rehabilitation teachers as they are now called, help those who have lost their sight to organize and arrange their homes, so they can continue to do all the chores they used to do.

Once again, Millie excelled at the task, living in Windsor for a few years and serving the area, before becoming the Ontario Supervisor of Home Teachers. In this capacity, this remarkable woman travelled throughout the province on her own, by train, working with her extensive team. When in Toronto, she lived in an apartment at Bayview and Glenvale, conveniently close to the CNIB.

According to her friend and colleague, Florence Carter, Millie was “a great boss and supervisor.” She was such a kind and caring person that “when she took you into her office for a chat, you didn’t realize until afterward that she had been reprimanding you.” She went on to say that Millie was a mentor to many rehabilitation teachers and was “more of a friend than a boss.”

After her rewarding and enjoyable career, Millie retired in 1982, but then started volunteering in the music library at the CNIB. At the same time, she and her sighted friend, Lillian Malley, embarked upon several years of later life learning by attending a lecture series at Glendon College in general interest courses such as music and world religions. At first, they hiked up Bayview, but as the years passed, started taking the bus and later getting rides from East York Harmony Hall services. Lillian and Millie also attended Northlea United Church, and travelled extensively to Spain, England, France, Mexico, Florida and Arizona over the years.

It was only three years ago that Millie moved into The Millwood Retirement Residence at 921 Millwood. While she enjoys the level of care there, she says that there are days when she would like to be back in her old apartment. She is also sorry that so many of her friends are gone, but has learned to make friends with younger people in their 70s and 80s. In fact, with her new friends at The Millwood, Millie goes out for lunch to such nearby restaurants as Stars and Olde Yorke Fish and Chips.

Another friend is Iona Gherasim, who met Millie in 1980 at the CNIB. Millie was her mentor while Iona was being trained as a rehabilitation teacher. Iona and Florence were instrumental in planning Millie’s party. Iona had the guest list printed in Braille so that Millie could look forward to enjoying her guests, mostly professional people from her working days. She is also having congratulatory letters from Prime Minister Trudeau, Premier Wynne, Councillor Burnside and Queen Elizabeth printed in Braille and put into a binder for Millie.

As for the secret to Millie’s longevity, she said that she has good genes. Her mother lived to 99 and her father into his 80s. She also commented, “Hard work does not kill anyone,” and thinks that the most important factor in a long life is “having a purpose in life so that you don’t give up.”

This is obviously the motto that has inspired Millie throughout her long and fulfilling life, and will serve as an inspiration to others.

About Janis Fertuck 108 Articles
Janis Fertuck is a retired English teacher who spent the last 30 years of her career at Leaside High School. She enjoys writing about the vibrant Leaside community where she and her husband have lived for 22 years. Her other favourite pursuits include a part-time job at a boutique on Bayview and volunteering with the Bayview Pixies.