Author Tags: Maritime, Women
Paul Levy's biography River Queen: The Amazing Story of Tubboat Titan Lucille Johnstone (Harbour 2006) tells the story of how an unskilled girl Friday in the late 1940s overcame obstacles in a male-dominated industry and elevated herself to become CEO and president of Rivtow, the coastal tow-boating company that began with three log-towing vessels.
River Queen: The Amazing Story of Tugboat Titan Lucille Johnstone (Harbour 2006). $34.95. 1-55017-369-3
[BCBW 2006] "Maritime" "Women"
River Queen: The Amazing Story of Tugboat Titan Lucille Johnstone
On the departure level of the Vancouver Airport stands a six-foot-tall toy tugboat with a bright smile on its face, and the unlikely name “Lucille” emblazoned on its side. It’s a fair guess that few of the passengers who hurry by know the story behind it.
That story is the subject of Paul E. Levy’s River Queen: The Amazing Story of Tugboat Titan Lucille Johnstone (Harbour $34.95).
Levy, a lawyer and her authorized biographer, doesn’t push the analogy between his subject and a tugboat. As his title suggests, he prefers the more heroic stature of queens and giants. But Lucille, a large-ish woman who chose the model tugboat as the most suitable way of honoring her part in establishing the new Vancouver International Airport, would not have been offended by the comparison.
A tugboat is, after all, “a small stoutly-built, powerful steamer used to tow other vessels.”
Among the affectionate nicknames she earned, besides the predictable “Tugboat Annie,” were ones that reflected her maternal image—“Mumsy,” “Mother Mac,” and “The Godmother.”
As the daughter of parents who managed a park concession stand, Lucille joined the workforce in 1940, at the age of sixteen, as a graduate of Fairview High School of Commerce, a vocational school that trained girls to be excellent stenographers and secretaries.
In her teens she was five feet tall, weighed 195 pounds, and had trouble finding a job. “I chewed my fingernails, was overweight and did not dress well,” she says. As a Girl Friday, she never did “dress for success” or have dreams of “climbing the corporate ladder.” The notion of women “breaking the glass ceiling” was yet to come. But her upward mobility happened quickly.
She had not worked long as receptionist/ typist for a logging company, when her supervisor saw she was capable of more than typing letters. He transferred her to the company’s towing division. So began her 45-year career in the male-dominated world of tugboating in B.C.
Lucille soon took over the dispatching of tugboats—a complicated job that required knowledge of weather conditions, tides, water levels, river traffic, and tugboat positions. When the company reorganized eight years later and River Towing was formed with six tugs, she served as the entire office staff.
By the time Rivtow grew to become a corporation of $250 million in revenues and 1,500 employees, she had worked her way up from dispatcher to administrator, to CEO, and finally to president.
Along the way she took a course at the Banff School of Advanced Management, where she was the sole woman in a class of 70, only the third woman to attend in the school’s fourteen-year history. When a new five-year program leading to certified general accountancy degree was announced at UBC, she took the course, one of five women in a class of 107 students. The lectures were in the evening and she often did homework during the night.
Like many high achievers she seemed to need little sleep; Lucille set her alarm clock for midnight and studied until three in the morning to become a CGA. Within eight years she was elected president of the provincial board of CGA governors in Canada.
While the media made much of Lucille’s status as “first woman” in the male-dominated towing industry and “first woman director” on many boards, she declared her gender irrelevant, and pointed out that she was invited aboard because of her general business skills.
In the early eighties, she told the Financial Post, “There are very few companies left which do not recognize that women are here to stay and intend to be part of the scene. I don’t think women have the battle today that they did before.”
It’s interesting to note, however, that twenty years later the impact of women board members is still being debated. A November 18, 2006 article in the Globe & Mail states that “a lone woman on a board can feel like a token whose gender is noticed more than her individual contribution” and that “women have their greatest impact as corporate directors when they reach a critical mass of three or more on a board.”
Although Lucille was often the sole female board member, she frequently became chair of that board.
A tireless worker, she could also be inventive. When asked to revamp one company, she called the managers to a meeting and had them all remove their shoes and put on gray socks. “Those socks,” she said, “represent everybody working and everybody the same.” In another instance, she set up a
“swear pot” into which employees had to put a quarter when they swore. (The head of the company contributed ten dollars in advance to pay for forty good swear words.) When Rivtow needed to buy a $1.4 million barge, she found a tax loophole that enabled private companies to provide funding to a principal shareholder to buy a house. By arranging for a first mortgage on the owner’s house, she allowed Rivtow to purchase the barge that generated millions of dollars of revenue for the next forty years.
Married at age 39, she adopted three children, managed a family-owned farm and then won a precedent-setting divorce settlement that benefitted other women in B.C. ever since. One wonders if gender was as irrelevant to her career as she claimed, or if it played a crucial part in the shoddy treatment she received from Rivtow, especially when she was forced into retirement after years of service, and after earning millions for the company. The company rejected her request for a pension, saying, “Surely you have saved enough out of your salary to look after yourself in old age.” They demanded her shares in the company but wanted to pay over a long period of time, claiming they did not have the money to pay her. She considered legal action but finally settled out of court in order to avoid the publicity and the stress.
Lucille Johnstone’s career did not end when she left Rivtow. She became a driving force behind Expo 86 and the new Vancouver International Airport facility. At age 71, she took over the operation of the St. John Ambulance Society in B.C. Over a period of eight years (and with very little remuneration) she rescued it from a deteriorating financial state and put it on a sound footing. “This was one of her greatest achievements,” Levy concludes, “the way she went about it should be required reading for anyone running a non-profit organization.” The likes of Grace McCarthy, Reed Stenhouse chair Robert D’Arcy and Jimmy Pattison all sing her praises in this admiring biography. 1-55017-369-3
-- review by biographer and novelist Joan Givner, who has written critical studies of female characters, including Katherine Anne Porter and Mazo De La Roche.
[BCBW 2007] "History"