Francess Halpenny was born on May 27, 1919 in Ottawa, Ontario. Her father was a druggist and was attached to the dispensary in the army during World War I. Her mother, a remarkable woman, was a homemaker who stayed home to look after the family. After the War, Francess, her parents and younger brother moved, first to Maxville in Eastern Ontario, then to Toronto. In 1941, she received her Master’s degree from the University of Toronto (U of T). By the fall of that year she had been hired by the Editorial Department at the U of T Press. One year later, she took leave from her position to join the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) 5th Squadron -- Women’s Division.
“It seemed like the right thing to do,” she said. With her educational background, her skill set was a good match to be selected as a Meteorological Observer. “The role required someone with a bit more education to understand and analyze the weather data collected and make a sensible response.”
For the next three years Francess served her country, spending most of her time stationed at the RCAF base in Torbay, Newfoundland -- eight miles north of St. John’s. At that time it was considered an overseas assignment. The base was an action station and home to fighter squadrons that played a vital role helping to keep the shipping lanes between the North Atlantic and Britain open.
Convoys of ships headed to England with much needed goods for its people along with military supplies and personnel, were high-value targets for the Germans. The Newfoundland coast can be extremely foggy. Having an accurate, up-to-date understanding of weather conditions on any given day, at any given time was critical to determining daily missions and defense flight paths for the squadrons – enabling them to carry out their duties as protectors of the convoys.
“Everything we did was of interest because the flyers depended on the information they were given,” says Francess. “Our job was to observe every hour of weather. We plotted the information we collected from other stations and shared what we collected from ours with them. We worked in eight-hour shifts providing round-the-clock coverage.
“When I enlisted, I had never been to Montreal let alone east of it. During my time in the RCAF, I got to know the Maritimes and became extremely fond of Newfoundland.” Francess spent most of 1945 in Prince Edward Island. The European war was winding down and the efforts turned to planes, personnel and supplies headed to the South Pacific.
Upon returning home, Francess resumed to her job at the U of T – beginning her life-long association with the University. Over the span of her career, she served as managing editor of the U of T Press, associate director (academic) and dean of the Faculty of Library Science. Her extensive body of work in the areas of academia, editing and librarianship reflect her diversity and dedication.
In 1979, she was made an Officer of the Order of Canada and was promoted to Companion in 1984. She was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and awarded the Molson Prize for her editorial work on the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. She also received 11 honorary degrees from various Canadian universities.
Francess moved to Sunnybrook Veterans Centre in 2013. Her younger brother and his wife – both Veterans – are also residents.
In reflecting back on her time in the service, Francess had this to say: I was very glad to be able to serve. What we did was an integral part of the mission of the RCAF and I’m very proud of that. No one wants to have to serve, but if they do, they want to put their best effort forward because the lives of others depend on it.”