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Dorothe Comber

December 14, 2023

Dorothe Comber with Skippie and Sarah, December 1965.

By Bob Hughes

Originally Published in the Visitor, July 23, 1997

Every village has its historical characters, extraordinary people remembered chiefly for their unusual presences among us, and Bobcaygeon is no exception. Counted among its most memorable citizens is Dorothe Comber—and she had a secret.

Dorothe was the daughter of W.T. (Walter) Comber, an Oxford University graduate in educational studies, who was brought from Bury St. Edmund, England, by Mossom Boyd to teach his children in what is today [in 1997] the front room of the Bobcaygeon Public Library. In Dorothe’s younger years, Mossom built Hillcroft on its attractive site along County Road 8 for the education of up to 20 pupils, mainly boys, whose parents could afford the British-style boarding school.

Dorothe’s home as a child, Hillcroft progressively served as a high school, hospital (closed in an earlier Ontario government save taxes campaign) and nursing home. Following in her father’s footsteps to become an educationalist, Dorothe lived many years elsewhere, teaching in Arnprior, Beamsville and Wingham.

But Bobcaygeon was still home and, on her retirement in 1978, she returned here to establish her reputation among residents as “a little different,” with a voice usually employed at maximum volume. Among the many tales still recalled about her later years was her recurring habit, at Trinity United Church of appearing to sleep during the sermon. That she was, in fact, very attentive would disturbingly emerge when the minister made what she felt was a mistake. Raising her head, she would thunder, ‘That’s not right!’ To their credit, no minister ever argued.

Therein lies the other Dorothe, a woman who listened and stepped in to make things right. Unknown to this day by all but a few people, she used her financial resources to bankroll what now would be called ‘start-up businesses,’ enterprises local people wanted to establish, but which needed funding in a time when banks were often reluctant to take the chance. Village councillor and unofficial historian Harry Van Oudenaren was one of the several recipients of her largesse. “It was all business, but it was done on a handshake—no lawyers, which she distrusted—and entries in a little black book, with the loans carrying bank interest of around six percent. She was not a demanding person in this regard, just someone who felt her money could be put to better use than by being in a bank account.

Harry used his $12,000 to establish his service station and garage on County Road 8 across from where the road from where he lives today [in 1997], and to which he walks whenever his spirit says his son, Pieter, can use his help. The transaction also helped cement a close, life-long friendship between Dorothe and the Van Oudenaren family.

However, to her death in 1981, Dorothe never truly lost her aggressive nature, although it did mutate into a degree of intransigence. Dorothe drove her own car, a practice somewhat dangerous to other people’s possessions. Apparently, Dorothe had a habit of judging her parallel parking position by bumping parked cars fore and aft. Even the police chief could not persuade her to give up her driving licence and turned to Harry, who was rebuffed, despite an offer to have his sons drive her places.

Until the day Dorothe walked into the Van Oudenaren house, and giving over the keys to son Pieter and told him to take her where she wanted to go. As the two left the house, Dorothe admitted to Pieter that she had decided some time before to give up driving, and had promised Harry she’d do so. But not before she’d had one last trip. “Of course, I didn’t tell your father.”

That was Dorothe Comber: her own woman in public, quiet benefactor to the community in private. Bobcaygeon was lucky to count her among its own.

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