Last week, I began to tell you about a talented and quiet waif of a girl whose grave I regularly make a pilgrimage just before the annual Cemetery Strolls in Maple Leaf Cemetery materialize.
She has always held a special place in my heart, even though I never knew her, met her nor even saw her skate. I only remember reading about her when I was a lad of 10 or so and she was a wisp of a teenager. At the time, her life seemed to be one of a charmed existence. But as time went on, my view changed to one of sadness.
When the 1960 Winter Olympics began in Squaw Valley, Calif., there was not a more innocent young athlete than Chatham’s own Sandra Tewkesbury, who was one of the brightest stars on the Canadian ice skating team
Her climb up the ice skating ladder to gain a berth on the Canadian Olympic team was breathtaking. She began skating as a 40-pound 10-year-old in 1952. It was reported that she weighed so little that judges had difficulty in marking her scores as her figures on the ice were so faint.
By 1956, thanks to a mysterious and generous local sponsor (known only as “Mr. X”) who helped to pay for her lessons, ice time and clothing apparel, Sandra had won three gold medals (in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom). She was at the top of her ice skating career and by April, Sandra’s father, A.O. Tewkesbury of 39 Wilson Ave. in Chatham, hinted in an interview with the Chatham Daily News that his daughter “has her eye on a berth on Canada’s next Olympic team.”
In 1957, Sandra continued her winning ways by winning the Canadian senior championship in Niagara Falls in January, as well as winning at the regional skating trials.
In the early part of 1959, she placed third at the Canadian championships, fifth in the North American events and 10th in the world competition in Colorado.
In September 1959, she placed first among all the women skaters at the Canadian Olympic skating trials and was chosen to represent Canada at the 1960 Winter Olympics to be held at Squaw Valley.
Skating her best among the world’s best, at age 18 Sandra Tewkesbury managed to place 10th in the world. The fact she had placed 10th in 1959 at the world competition event leads one to think, in light of what we now know in 2016 about the history of judging in figure skating, that she was destined to be 10th in the world at Squaw Valley no matter how she performed. But that’s immaterial to our story.
The important thing to keep in mind about Sandra Tewkesbury is that from 1952 to 1960 she put Chatham on the map throughout the figure skating world, and she did it in an earnest, innocent, sweet fashion full of passion without attitude or ego. She was a perfect example of what an Olympic athlete should be and a great role model for teenage athletes everywhere.
That said, it makes it even more difficult to finish our story for it ends on a terribly tragic and so undeserving a note.
In June 1962, two years after her Olympic performance, Sandra had retired from professional skating, had married a former employee of the advertising staff of the Chatham Daily News (Gary Ritchie), had taken a part time job as an instructor with the Guelph Figure Skating Club and was living with her husband in Galt. She was looking forward to having her first child.
Driving alone on Highway 7 about one mile from the Guelph city limits, after giving skating lessons at a local arena, she was involved in a car crash that pinned her small frame within her vehicle until police officers were able to free her. Five hours later, the former skating star died in a Guelph hospital.
The tragedy was further deepened by the fact her parents were notified by authorities and initially told to go to the hospital in Galt. By the time the mistake had been rectified and her parents arrived at the Guelph hospital, Sandra Tewksebury-Ritchie had, along with her unborn infant, died.
Funeral rites were held at the Stephens Funeral Home in Chatham and one can visit her grave in Maple Leaf Cemetery in Chatham, where she is buried alongside her parents. It is near the fence along the Creek Road between the two Creek Road entrances to the cemetery. If you cannot find the grave, ask me for directions. I know the way very well.
Enshrined in one of the glass cases at Chatham Memorial Arena are some faded artifacts dealing with the former Canadian ice skating sensation, as well as a picture of the unbelievably young girl who accomplished so much in such a brief span of time. Her youthful demeanour stares back at all who choose to stop and ponder this display.
Her picture speaks to all of us about the fragile and fickle nature of life that, in so many instances, seems so unfair and unfathomable. Had she lived, Sandra Tewkesbury Ritchie would have been 78 today.
Each October during my much too brief visitation to her grave, I think about her, her accomplishments and her tragic end. I also contemplate my own life. As I stand in the cemetery as dusk approaches, and darkness slowly closes in upon me, I reflect upon my own past, present and the always unknown future.
Life offers no promises for tomorrow and even the most wonderful life can turn so sour in such a brief period of time. We should all live our lives as if there is no tomorrow. We should all remember the life and times of Sandra Tewkesbury who had it all and then, in a few tragic totally and unexpected moments, lost it all. Such has life always been and such is life will always be.
The Gilberts are award-winning historians with a passion for telling the stories of C-K’s fascinating past.