Most people have heard of Harry Jerome. His name adorns recreation centres and his statue is in Stanley Park. At one time he was the fastest man alive, setting a total of seven world records. In 1970 he was made an officer of the Order of Canada. Fewer people remember his sister Valerie, yet she is just as amazing.
The following is an excerpt from Sensational Vancouver’s Legendary Women chapter.
Valerie Jerome had just turned seven when she moved with her family from Winnipeg to North Vancouver. Along with her sister Carolyn, 10, and brothers Harry, 11 and Barton, 6, they moved in across the road from Ridgeway Elementary.
Valerie still vividly remembers her first day at that school.
“It seemed like every kid in the school was lined up with rocks,” she says. “I can still remember the feeling of the first rock that hit my back as we ran.”
Valerie doesn’t like to think much about those days, but every February, for more than a decade, she drove across the bridge from Vancouver, returned to her old elementary school and talked to the kids about those early days for Black History month.
She started by pointing to the house on Lyons Place where they lived, and where in 1953, fire broke out during the middle of the night when the sawdust burner caught fire. Valerie was sent to ask a neighbour to call the fire department, not because she was the oldest—she wasn’t—but because she was the whitest.
The family were left out on the street while the neighbours watched from behind their curtains.
“Nobody came out to help us. My mother was pregnant with my youngest sister and we finally got a cab to the Salvation Army Hall on Lonsdale,” says Valerie. The family spent the night on chairs on the sidewalk.
In 1954 the Jeromes bought a small rancher on East 17th near their next school Sutherland Junior Secondary. Valerie worked in the school cafeteria at lunch time, rather than sit alone at a table or go home.
The year she turned 15 everything changed. She set Canadian records at the 1959 Canadian Track and Field National Championships in her running events, broke her age group record for long jump, and helped her team win the relay. She won bronze at the Pan American games in Chicago, and the following year, she joined her brother Harry to represent Canada at the Summer Olympics in Rome.
The media of the day called them the “dusky brother and sister athletes.”
“After I had been to the Olympics I was invited to eat with everybody,” she says. “We had a little bit of celebrity and somehow our brown skins turned white.”
The City of North Vancouver held a dance in their honour and gave them $500 each to spend.
Sport made everything bearable, she says.
“When the stopwatch gave you a great time, it didn’t matter what colour you were.”
Harry died from a brain aneurysm in 1982. He was 42.
Valerie went to university, became a teacher and taught in Vancouver for 35 years. She spent three decades as a track and field official. Valerie ran in eight elections for the Green Party, federally, provincially and civically. She did all that without any expectation of being elected, but as a way of getting green ideas out. “Nobody was talking about the environment at all in those days,” she says. Her son, Stuart Parker, led the BC Green Party from 1993 to 2000.
In November 2010 dozen of her former students gathered in Stanley Park to see a bench dedicated in her honour. It sits in Stanley Park right next to the statue of her brother Harry.
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