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Lives well lived: Remembering Cara Joy Hughes

Cara Joy at her house in Vancouver relaxing with her rescue dog from Jamaica.

DECEMBER 17, 1932 – OCTOBER 20, 2021

Her Salt Spring neighbours over the last thirty years knew Cara Joy Hughes for her determined daily walks with one of a succession of equally determined dogs. She always took time to exchange a few words with us, but had we only known how remarkable her life and achievements were, what conversations we might have had! The anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote that one of the most significant facts about human beings may be that “we all begin with the natural equipment to live a thousand kinds of life but end in the end having lived only one.” Cara Joy Hughes’ multi-faceted life disputes that.

Toronto-born to Gordon R. and Eva C. Hughes in 1932, the family, which included her two older brothers Gordon and Bill, moved to Winnipeg, where Cara Joy started her education at the well-known Riverbend School. Her intelligence and unremitting curiosity about the world launched her into studies at the University of Manitoba. No wallflower, she was chosen “Freshie Queen of Science,” and then went on to be Valedictorian for her BSc (Hons), in 1954. This, in the then-prevailing “men’s world” of mathematics and physics, was no minor achievement. Indeed, Cara Joy had to switch courses in 5th year from nuclear physics to logic because the professor declared that a radiation lab was no suitable place for a young lady. Further, a summer job working on geology data almost led to a position with Shell, but the question of toilet facilities for women in the field was raised at head office, and that was the end of that. Yet as doors closed, others had inevitably opened, for pleasure, work and education from a summer job at Chateau Lake Louise to her first full-time job with the Defense Research Board in Ottawa and a Masters degree in mathematics at Harvard.

She had a knack for being in the right place at the right time, and when serendipitous opportunities arose, she had the courage to take them. Waiting for an interview in London with the British Air Ministry when metal fatigue in the Vulcan aircraft kept postponing the interview, Cara Joy spotted a newspaper advertisement for jobs with IBM, then in the early stages of the computer field. Two fun years with IBM programming and teaching Fortran in London followed, along with skiing in Norway and hitch-hiking trips through Europe and Turkey. For the long way home, Cara Joy and a friend were offered a passage on a grain-carrier ship from Norway, sailing across the Atlantic and along the southeast coast of Baffin Island to Port Churchill, where Cara Joy spent a few days watching belugas before she took the railway south. Back in Ottawa by 1960, Cara Joy applied to Remington Rand in Philadelphia to work in computer research (after a brief sojourn with the Dominion Bureau of Statistics as a civil servant, which definitively was not her cup of tea). A chance to be funded for a PhD at Harvard beckoned. Cara Joy phoned a professor from her previous graduate studies at Harvard, who expedited her entry into the program, and by 1968, she had in hand, her PhD in Engineering and Applied Science. But let’s not picture Cara Joy as a dour student bent over prickly calculations in a gloomy office. See her instead writing an elegant program to display telemetry from radio-telescopes—one that, with a few tweaks, is still in use today—or speeding off in her Mustang convertible for a day of spelunking, wilderness hiking, or jumping out of a plane, parachute-ready. All this, while still in her thirties.

Cara Joy returned to Canada and taught computer science, at the University of Ottawa, then at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. In between, the University of the West Indies had a computer donated by the Canadian government and Cara Joy was the person to go to Jamaica in 1970 to help with how it worked. While she was there, Cara Joy took on teaching mathematics, which opened her eyes to the challenges—and joys—of teaching people who actually had no sense whatsoever of how mathematics worked. She was a natural teacher, patient and curious, and she returned to the discipline again, tutoring math’s in Adult Education evening courses while lecturing at UBC before her next reincarnation as a practicing lawyer.

Once more, chance conversations had led to a new pursuit, this time law studies, and she was called to the bar as a barrister and solicitor in 1981. As a lawyer, mostly in family practice, Cara Joy had the advantage of being her own boss. Nonetheless, she once made the revealing comment that she’d take orders from anyone—as long as they knew what they were doing. Her new field could be stressful, though, so Cara Joy built, largely on her own, a small remote cabin in Pesayton Valley near Manning Park, where she could retreat for long walks.

After ten years of practicing law in Vancouver, she “retired” to Salt Spring Island, although it was retirement only in the sense of no longer practicing law. She remained active, resourceful, indefatigable: helping deflect a developer from building an airfield in the Fulford Valley, supporting anti-logging camps and blockades at Burgoyne Bay, organizing a Shakespeare reading group for an offshoot of the University Women’s Club, driving for seniors, and gaining a name for herself as the ‘Scrabble lady’ for Greenwoods. Her energy and drive, her kindness, acute perception and humour have delighted a wide network of friends for many years, even more so after she became the last living member of her family.

At home, she was never without the loyal support of a canine companion. She took great pleasure in writing a book inspired by all those years of teaching and tutoring adults who had no knowledge of numbers without calculation. She called her book The Culture of Numbers a history of numbers and civilizations, and it boasts an astonishing array of meticulously-researched footnotes, some of which required ferreting about in the Bodleian library at the University of Oxford in England. Remarkably, it’s illustrated with her own paintings—another life-long skill. Publishers, hidebound as ever, took exception to the equally remarkable fact that the book is written in verse. Cara Joy realized that to revert back to prose would take her time she didn’t have. Although she always said that doors just happened to open for her at the right time… the book remains a door half-open.

Lady Minto Foundation extends our deepest gratitude to Cara for her generous donation to the hospital in her estate. Cara’s legacy will live on through the many people the hospital is able to serve and help because of her philanthropic spirit. For more information about including a gift to Lady Minto Hospital in your will, please contact us.