Memorial Gathering for Frances Wagner
Uniacke Estate, Mt Uniacke NS
July 14, 2017
About 20 friends and family gathered in the Carriage House at the Uniacke Estate in
Mount Uniacke, Nova Scotia, to remember Frances Wagner. Several brought photographs
to contribute to a display table, which also included some of Frances's important
scientific papers and books and the compass she purchased for her first field trip to James
Bay in 1950 and used for the rest of her career.
Jan Morrell acted as Master of Ceremonies. She told briefly the story of how she and her
partner, Anne Bishop, came to know Frances at the Windsor Elms, where she lived for
the last three and a half years of her life. Jan and Anne's dominant impression of Frances
was of an intense, independent and competent woman who, while she was generous in
sharing her knowledge, was also a very private person, not easy to get to know. Friends
from one area of her life would express surprise when they learned of her
accomplishments in another circle entirely. Her life was one of overlapping spheres of
involvement. This memorial gathering was organized not only to bring closure to her life,
but to give everyone a glimpse of Frances's different worlds through the eyes of someone
who knew her in that area.
The longest passion in Frances's life was dogs. She owned dogs for sixty years and bred
them for forty. Two of Frances's friends in the dog world wrote tributes to be read aloud,
although they could not attend the memorial themselves.
The first was Leslie Giles Hennigar, who knew Fran for forty-seven years. She wrote
about Fran's twenty years of breeding and showing Shetland Sheepdogs and the stained
glass "Thicketwood Kennel" sign, displayed at the entrance to her property, designed and
made by Fran herself. She also designed and knitted a coat, sweaters and vest from yarn
spun from the dogs' undercoat. Leslie also paid tribute to the work Fran put into
organizing clinics to screen dogs' eyes, including several service dogs and two handreared
wolves from the Schubenacadie Wildlife Park.
Linda Hill picked up where Leslie left off, describing the leadership Fran provided for the
small group of breeders struggling to save the Norweigian Lundehund, a critically
endangered breed. She told a story that brought a laugh from the assembled company,
about coming across the Canadian border with two Norweigian Lundehunds from a
breeder in New Hampshire. Thinking of the dogs as family rather than chattels, Fran and
Linda claimed they had "nothing to declare." The border guard did not believe them. He
wanted to know how much the dogs were worth.
"They were a gift," the two women explained.
"They still have a value," said the guard.
Fran and Linda called the breeder, but she was out. While they waited, Frances decided to
tell the guard all about the breed, it's unusual characteristics, its history in the US and
Canada, the story of how it was nearly wiped out and the genetic challenge of bringing it
back from too few surviving individuals. "I'm not saying the border guard's eyes were
glazing over," Linda concludes, "But shortly thereafter we were on our way, having
agreed that, by coincidence, each dog was worth exactly the amount of our duty-free
Frances was also passionate about horses, Morgan horses in particular. She was a
member of the Canadian Morgan Horse Association for forty-five years and a founding
member of the Nova Scotia Historical Riding Society, researching and sewing period
costumes and giving sidesaddle riding demonstrations at museums around the province,
including at least three on the grounds of Uniacke House.
Leslie Wade spoke on behalf of the Nova Scotia Morgan Horse Association. She read an
excerpt from a tribute to Fran written by her friend JoAnn Steeves and published in the
Canadian Morgan Horse Association's magazine, remembering Fran as "a quiet,
unassuming but very knowledgeable Morgan horse enthusiast with exceptional
organizational talents and a strong interest in the historical aspects and influence of the
Morgan in Nova Scotia. She was a gentlewoman in every sense of the word."
Fran was a longtime friend of Leslie's parents and often visited their farm where the
family bred Morgans. They were surprised when they read Fran's obituary in the Globe
and Mail, because they had known very little about her professional life.
Marian Crosby, also a member of the Nova Scotia Morgan Horse Association, added her
memory of how she got started riding sidesaddle. Fran had shown her beloved gelding
Jay under sidesaddle in the Historical Costume Class at the annual Morgan show in
Windsor. When Marian expressed interest, Fran immediately encouraged her to mount
and see what it felt like. She later helped her learn sidesaddle riding and buy her own
saddle. Marian rode one of her Morgans sidesaddle to the altar for her wedding.
Fran's Career in Paleontology
Jan told a couple of stories we have heard about her early passion for science. A
childhood friend remembers Fran challenging the other children of cottagers on Mary
Lake in Muskoka to see how many species of lichen they could find along the stone walk
leading to one of the cottages. She remembered they found fifty-one. The two now adult
children of the family Fran boarded with when she first went to Ottawa remembered with
delight her taking them on fossil hunting expeditions in the quarry where she was doing
the research for her MA in Invertebrate Paleontology. She went on to complete an MSc in
Geology and a PhD in Paleontology at Stanford University in California.
Fran began her scientific career with the Geological Survey of Canada in Ottawa in 1950
and then moved to work out of the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in 1967. Two of
her colleagues from the BIO, both geophysicists, were present at the gathering.
Bosko Loncarevic is a former director at the BIO. He and Frances were among the first
generation of scientists to work there, arriving shortly after the Institute opened. He spoke
of her dedication, working fifty hours a week and producing a significant amount of
scientific information. She was a world expert in fossilized molluscs. Her first major
contribution was the mapping of the Champlain Sea, an ancient body of salt water in
southern Quebec and northern New York State left behind when the glaciers melted at the
end of the last Ice Age. Over a period of 3000 years following the retreat of the ice, the
land rebounded and the Champlain Sea disappeared, but Frances mapped it through the
fossil deposits in the shorelines it left behind. The practical application of the study
became evident in 1955 when a landslide destroyed twenty-four homes in Quebec. The
instability of the soils in the area is caused by ice crystals, still melting to this day,
liquifying the surrounding sand. Frances was able to explain why the landslide happened
and predict where others might occur.
After Frances's study of the Champlain Sea was completed, she turned her attention to the
Arctic, where she mapped the history of changing shorelines there, with implications for
several fields of knowledge, including the study of climate change. It was here that
Frances's and Bosko's work overlapped, when both participatied in a major scientific
research project called Hudson 70. The Canadian Scientific Ship Hudson departed from
Dartmouth in November 1969 and circumnavigated the Americas doing oceanographic
research. Bosko and Frances were both aboard for part of the journey through the
Bosko talked about how self-contained Frances was, how private and difficult to get to
know. She did not volunteer information about herself and gave a minimal response when
asked about anything personal. For five weeks on the Hudson 70 journey, they ate at the
same table, but he knew no more about her when they finished than when they started.
The other memorable thing about Frances at the BIO, Bosko told us, was that she was the
only scientist who brought dogs to work. She had them in her office with her every day
for years until someone complained. This led to much discussion, resulting in Frances
being asked to leave the dogs at home. It was at this point that she left the BIO.
The second speaker from Frances's days at the BIO was Charlotte Keen. She read a
written contribution from Charles Schafer, one of Frances's colleagues in the
paleontology section. He worked with Frances on a number of major studies and also
mentioned not only her dogs, but her mother, who would visit the BIO from time to time
to make sure her supervisor understood exactly what sort of behaviour was expected of
her daughter's colleagues.
Charles wrote about the excitement of those years in the newly-formed BIO: "The
decades that we worked together were exciting times in Canada's ocean research history.
Many of us would often find ourselves in the office on weekends, eager to discover the
secrets held by data and seafloor samples collected during the previous summer field
season. For both of us, and for many of our Marine Geology Section colleagues from all
over the world, it was a once-in-a-lifetime job opportunity that came with a good measure
of Institute-wide comraderie that has since, unfortunately, disappeared for the most part
with the growth of BIO into a large multi-departmental government facility. Nevertheless,
fond memories of the old days invariably pop to the surface when one of our pioneer
colleagues transitions to the spiritual world. Sail on Frances!"
Charlotte added a tribute of her own, as a female scientist. Coming along fifteen years
after Frances, she told us it was important to have a woman already there, doing scientific
work, a role model for younger women.
Retirement in Mount Uniacke
Following retirement, Frances settled in Mount Uniacke and became an active member of
the Uniacke Heritage Society. She brought her passion for history, detail and mapping to
the group and, in return, found a caring community that respected her abilities and gave
her many outlets for her love of nature, dogs and horses. Ken and Barbara Isles were
especially good neighbours, caring for Frances as she gradually lost the ability to be as
independent as she would like.
Ken Isles spoke on behalf of the former Uniacke Heritage Society, first introducing the
members and other Mount Uniacke neighbours who were present. Ken brought copies of
the roads and trails map Frances made of the Mount Uniacke area and told a story of
travelling with her to the Department of Lands and Forests to get the details as accurate
as possible. On the way, she directed every move of his driving and parking. After the
meeting, they returned to the second level of a downtown Halifax parking garage where
they had left his car. "That's not my car," Ken objected. "It's running." He had been so
flustered once they got the car parked, he had walked away without turning it off. Fran
was truly a force to be reckoned with.
John Jackson, Frances's second cousin, and his wife, Ann, flew from Ontario to attend the
memorial. They had spent several years trying to find Frances, eventually locating her
house on Google Earth Street View, only to discover a for-sale sign in front. They
contacted the realtor on the sign and followed the trail from there to the Windsor Elms.
John explained that he doesn't remember ever meeting Frances. Their families' cottages
were very close to each other on Mary Lake in Muskoka, but "Frances was in the
category of adult. I was ten or twelve years old, in the category of young children that
should go and play outside." He did, however, share memories of Frances's younger
brother David. After hearing people's comments on how quiet and private Frances was,
he remarked that she must have gotten all of those genes. David got the other ones. He
was famous for his parties and taught John how to pack a Coleman stove, sleeping bag
and camp toilet into a milk carton and put it under the seat of a boat, turning it legally
into a "houseboat" where one was allowed to drink beer. He used to set his motor at its
lowest speed and tie the wheel, letting it slowly cross the lake with a party onboard. At
the other side, he would turn it around and party all the way back.
Once John decided to study geology, family members made him aware that he had a
famous geologist for a relative, one who had participated in the Hudson 70 expedition.
He indicated a page from Frances's undergraduate stratigraphy notebook on the display
table and remarked that his notes didn't look that good. In fact, his textbooks didn't look
Ann Jackson is also a geologist and shared her memories of a visit to the BIO. She spent
time with Frances in her office hearing about her work and admiring her dog hair sweater.
Afterwards, Frances took her to her home for supper and more conversation into the
After the more formal sharing of memories, the participants gathered around trays of food
and carafes of coffee and tea prepared by Don and Marilyn Hartlen, former neighbours of
Frances's in Mount Uniacke.
Thank you to the speakers and those who contributed their memories in writing, to the
Hartlens for the food and to Winfried Veibahn, Property Manager of the Uniacke Estate,
and his staff for helping us with the planning. They provided the venue for Frances's
memorial without charge in recognition of her years of contribution to the Uniacke
Frances's family and friends are collecting contributions to donate a bench with a
memorial plaque to the Uniacke Estate Park. It will be placed on the highest walking trail
on the property at the point where it emerges from the trees and provides a view over the
house and its grounds.