Local history: The Flying Schoolmarm

Aileen Meagher (left) at the 1936 Olympics. Photo: Olympics Canada

Today few Nova Scotians recall Aileen Meagher, but she was once one of the province’s most famous athletes.

She’s the Halifax teacher who represented Canada at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, where Adolf Hitler aimed to promote his racist vision of Aryan superiority.

Aileen Meagher. Photo: NS Archives

Meagher was born in Alberta in 1919, but grew up in Halifax. She graduated from Sacred Heart School and then Dalhousie, becoming a teacher. During her studies, she developed a passion for running, joining the track team and setting distances in the 100- and 200-yard dashes. (This was, incidentally, at a time when many disapproved of female athletes.)

At the 1934 British Empire Games (forerunners of the Commonwealth Games), she won a gold medal in the 600-yard relay, and silver medals in the 440-yard relay and 220-yard sprint. Sportswriters dubbed her “The Flying Schoolmarm.”

When of the most memorable moments of her career was the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where she witnessed competitions that scandalized the hometown German fans, who expected the results to validate their racist beliefs. Instead, nine Jewish athletes won medals, as did 18 Black Americans, including track star Jesse Owens.

Meagher brought a bronze medal home from Berlin, as a member of the Canadian 4 x 100-metre relay team, and concluded her career at the 1938 British Empire Games in Sydney, Australia. She won silver in the 400-yard relay, and bronze in the 600-yard relay.

For the next several months she used her winnings and savings to travel throughout Europe, South Asia, and Egypt. Upon her return home, she resumed teaching. For a time, she proudly displayed her bronze medal on her desk to inspire her inquisitive students.

Photo: NS Archives

Just before turning 40 in 1949, Meagher enrolled at NSCAD. Her natural talent and commitment yielded results in a very short time. Once her vibrant sketches and paintings became known through exhibitions, she began to receive numerous accolades.

She died in 1987 at age 76. Today, the Dalhousie University Art Gallery holds many of her pieces of her art, while you can find her diaries and sketch book at Sacred Heart. The Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame has her medals.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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