Jason Ellis grew up learning many powerful lessons from his late grandmother, Katie. She taught him that “hate” was a bad word. And that age was just a number. Throughout her life, she defied gender norms to reach her goals. She had boundless energy, and jokingly called herself a “seen-ager” rather than a senior.
“I spent much of my childhood with my grandmother, because my mother was a single mum,” Jason says. “She did an incredible job as a parent … but I lost her to cancer when I was 23. Oma was always an ally, and she was my biggest supporter through the most challenging part of my life.”
Now, Jason and his wife, Marilyne, are honouring Katharina “Katie” Ellis through their Wheels of Strength 1940 cycling challenge and raising funds for the Canadian Women’s Foundation along the way.
“What defined my grandmother was being a powerful woman who was an inspiration to many others, so that’s why we reached out to the Foundation,” Jason says. Though Katie passed away at age 79 on March 30, they feel she would have wanted to help others during the pandemic. The Foundation’s Tireless Together Fund is a cause that would reflect her values, the couple says.
“She was just such a strong-minded person,” says Marilyne. “Very few women of that generation would have moved alone from one country to another when they were 19 years old.” In 1959, Katie left Germany to travel to Canada, where she met and married her late husband, John. She had a job and raised three children, eventually becoming an executive in the printing industry and “breaking glass ceilings as she advanced her career,” says her obituary. After her husband died in 2002, Katie kept working toward her goals and went back to university at age 65. She earned a Bachelor of Arts and then a Master’s degree in English in 2014.
“She was a big inspiration for me because I wasn’t the best student,” Jason says. “But knowing that my 72-year-old Oma could write an essay told me that I could write an essay too. She really carved her own path.”
The couple is taking Katie’s “slow and steady” approach to their cycling challenge. They’re biking different routes after work and on weekends to reach their goal of 1,940 km, which marks the year Katie was born. To put that distance into perspective, it’s close to the driving distance from Toronto to Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia.
Jason and Marilyne are aiming to cycle all of those kilometres by Sept. 13, 2020, which would have been Katie’s 80th birthday. They also hope that family and friends can gather at that time for a celebration of Katie’s life, which hasn’t been possible yet because of pandemic restrictions.
One of the memories inspiring Jason and Marilyne along the way is how Katie came to meet them at the end of a previous bike journey they did in honour of their mothers, who both died of cancer.
“We ended up arriving at the finish line in Toronto at 10 p.m., and she was the only one waiting for us. She wanted to be there for us no matter what,” Marilyne says.
Though they’ve experienced some strong winds and a few aches and pains in the 600 km they’ve biked so far, they’re pacing themselves and enjoying the journey to their goal – just as Oma Katie did.
To support Jason and Marilyne’s Wheels of Strength 1940 challenge, visit the Facebook page where they’re tracking their progress and make your donation.