Obituary – Penny Rowe

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Bermuda spring break changed life

National Post Online, July 6, 2000

Penny Rowe, who has died aged 69, was a schoolteacher who became a radio journalist in Europe in the 1950s then went on to help her husband in his diplomatic career.

She married a Canadian, Alan Rowe, when she was 24, and the two of them changed each other’s lives. Without her he might have stayed an itinerant radio announcer; without him she might have stayed a New England schoolmarm.

Helen Ruth Hardt was born in Dunkirk, N.Y., on July 29, 1930, the daughter of a Dutch father and German mother. She never liked the name Helen, and only her parents used it. She obtained a bachelor’s degree in education at the State University of New York, and studied children’s theatre at Middlebury College in Vermont, where she was a student of Robert Frost. Afterward, she taught in various schools in New York and New England.

In 1954, she took her spring break in Bermuda where she had a romance with Alan Rowe, a Canadian who was working at the local radio station. He showed her the island on his Norton motorcycle, and proposed marriage on the fourth day after they met. They were married three months later.

For a short while they lived in London, Ont., where Alan Rowe worked on the start-up of a television station. But he met a Dutch foreign correspondent who had told the Rowes about jobs for English-language announcers at Radio Nederland. Penny and Alan Rowe started work in Holland in 1955.

The couple wrote and narrated programs in English and travelled across Europe on a 150cc Vespa. They also were professional photographers and shot landscapes for KLM calendars. If there was a famous English-speaking person in Holland, the Rowes interviewed them. Their celebrity list included Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and Jayne Mansfield.

Toward the late 1950s, Alan Rowe was encouraged by the then Canadian ambassador, Tommy Stone, to join the Foreign Service. It was then he confessed he had never graduated from high school. Penny Rowe took on the mission of guiding his academic career, ensuring he had the proper degrees before External Affairs’ recruitment cutoff age of 31.

In 1958, she flew back to the United States and secured a place for her husband as a mature student at Northwestern University. With his educated wife helping him, Alan Rowe graduated from Northwestern and won a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship; he chose to study at the University of Toronto.

Penny Rowe then became a diplomat’s wife. The Rowes’ first overseas posting was to the Canadian embassy in Beirut. In 1967, they transferred, with their young family, to the embassy in Havana.

The Rowes returned to Canada in 1969, and Alan Rowe was assigned to the Bureau of Security and Intelligence at External Affairs. Penny Rowe worried about the late nights the men would spend at External during the October Crisis of 1970. She would pack a hamper of frozen pastries for her husband to take to work, knowing they would thaw before the evening meetings. One night Mitchell Sharp, then the minister of external affairs, bit into one of Mrs. Rowe’s frozen doughnuts and nearly broke a tooth. “We better thaw these out before the prime minister gets here,” he cracked.

The Rowes’ final European posting was to Geneva in 1972. When they retired in 1988, the Rowes moved to Vancouver Island.

Though she worked with her husband to build his career, Penny Rowe was an independent woman. In the 1950s, she objected to McCarthyism and renounced her American citizenship to become a Canadian. Later she joined the Baha’i religion, a surprising move for a Yankee Protestant. When one of her sons announced he was living with another man, she threw them both a party.

Penny Rowe died of cancer. She is survived by her husband and two sons.