Wednesday, February 23, 2011

I remember you, Valda Champagne-Marks

Warning: Heavy Alert 
I'm not really sure what spurred on this particular thought today, but every once in a while I find myself remembering Valda. To explain why, I need to jump back a few years.

In 1986-1987 I was in grade 12 at St. Pius X high school in Ottawa, Ontario. At the beginning of the school year a completely new idea had been introduced called Cooperative Education (Co-op Ed). This program sent students to work onsite at jobs that interested them, and gave a head start by teaching valuable knowledge while on-the-job. It's now quite common.

I opted to try out the new course and spent the first half of the school year at the National Museum of Natural Science (NMNS). I illustrated the little wall plaques that detailed the display. It was as boring as it sounds, but I did learn some valuable illustration pointers that eventually led me to my first career and which I still use today.

It was my second term placement that really defined that year for me. I had always planned to take animation at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario. I had already been accepted to attend when my teacher, Mr. Macdonnell, informed me that he was able to secure a place for me with Hinton Animation Studios. Hinton was the animation studio behind the CBC television series 'The Raccoons'. As you can imagine, I was floored that I would be working there and drinking in everything I could about the profession.

When day-1 rolled around and I found myself in the basement of Hinton assembling a seemingly never-ending supply of custom built IKEA animation desks, needless to say I was very disappointed. I knew I was just a free student peon. When I complained to my teacher, the next week changed for the better.

That's when I met Valda.

Valda was the supervisor in the Xerox/Cel room where the illustrations were copied onto clear cells before going into the Opaquing Department where each one would be hand painted. It wasn't glamourous work, far from it, but it wasn't the basement and I wasn't wielding an IKEA allan key.

Valda took me under her wing and quickly became an advocate to get me further up the animation ladder. She was like an agent, getting me to where I wanted to go. She got me into Opaquing. She got me into Sound Editing and Film Editing. Then she got me into In-Between Animation. She gave me advice. She told me to ask that girl to prom I talked about. She hugged me like a mom, but treated me like a little brother. She even wanted to be sure we kept in touch after my placement so she could buy me drinks on my 19th birthday (even though she knew I'd been getting into bars underage in Ottawa and Hull for 3 years).

On my last day at Hinton, Valda walked me to the door at the end of the day, wished me luck and asked to keep in touch. I thanked her for all her help even though I had changed my mind about pursuing animation as a career. She gave me a big hug, and a kiss on the cheek, and that was that.

I never saw Valda again after that day.

I remember the morning as if it was yesterday. I got off the bus and went to my job as an illustrator at a t-shirt company. I grabbed a coffee and a bagel and set up at my desk in my corner of the art department while a coworker tuned in the local radio station just as the news was coming on. "The victims body was found partially clothed in a parking lot and identified of that of Valda Champagne-Marks of Ottawa..." was what I heard. It hit me like a punch in the stomach. Everything in my peripheral vision closed in and went black. It was hazy. I'd just heard the murder report of someone I knew and admired. Somewhere, sometime in the hours before, Valda had been attacked and murdered, and left with very little dignity.

I never attended her funeral. I only saw front page photos of her family grieving at her grave side. I've never visited her grave nor seen the memorial plaque with her name on in a park in Ottawa. I've rarely talked about it. But for some reason, I felt today I needed to. If there is any doubt in my mind that someone could have a huge influence on someone and the rest of their life, Valda eliminated it for me.

Thanks Valda. I still remember you.

On Friday March 11th, I was surprised by and email I received from Melanie Champagne who is Valda's daughter. She was only 13 years old at the time of her mom's death, and I was grateful for her note. It read:

Jeff your story was wonderful to read, for I am Melanie Champagne her daughter. I was 13 at the time of her death and so her life experiences cannot be shared with me. Things happen for a reason and maybe your reason for remembering is to help me with knowing my mother. I want to thank you for sharing your memory and now I will be cherishing it forever.

I tried to post this onto the blog but I could not do it but I really wanted you know this and somehow I will post it so it is known. You really did blog at a good time it really means a lot to me.

Thank you,
Melanie Champagne


  1. Jeff, I am not sure if you know that it is Kindness Week in Ottawa this week. What Valda did for you, and in turn your acknowledging her/remembering her is a true testament to how a small act of kindness can have lasting effects. I am so sad to hear how her life ended, but like you said, you remember her and her kindness. That is huge.

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