Goodbye, Mrs. Gomez
When UVic alumnus Bernard Von Schulmann found out about the news, he picked up the phone and started calling. He didn’t stop until he had contacted more than 50 of his former classmates.
Felicita Gomez, former long-time UVic student union building (SUB) custodian and namesake of campus pub Felicita’s, passed away on Oct. 2 in Crowsnest Pass, Alta., aged 97. She worked in the building for 22 years, from 1967 to 1989, and left a great impression on many of the students in UVic’s early years.
At a memorial service held in Victoria on Oct. 19, former coworkers and students remembered her legacy along with friends and family.
“Think of me as a crowd of 40 or 50 people,” said Von Schulmann at the memorial.“I want her family and friends to understand how much she was valued by [UVic students] in the 70s and the 80s.”
Grandson Shane Gomez is not surprised that his grandmother was a prominent figure on campus and is remembered and beloved by many. “There’s no one like her,” he said. “She worked tirelessly to do her job, but also was always interested in helping people.”
Over the course of her life, Felicita only received the equivalent of a formal fourth-grade education. But she influenced and impacted the lives of many students during her 22 years as the janitor of the SUB.
Felicita’s Pub is one of the few places on campus that is named after the working people who made campus better, rather than donors or university leadership.
Born in 1924, Felicita Diez was the daughter of a village mayor of La Preda, a mountain village in Asturias, Spain. Growing up, she worked on the family dairy farm and cultivated a strong work ethic that she would carry with her. Throughout her life, she would only sleep an average of four hours a night.
Felicita would meet and marry Jesus Gomez in her little mountain village — the specific details of how that happened remain a Gomez family mystery.
According to Shane, his grandfather was involuntarily conscripted into Franco’s Blue Division and participated in the siege of Leningrad during World War II. Jesus did not speak about the war and did not take his army pension, and came to Canada to seek another life.
Following the path of many post-war immigrants, the Gomezes came through Halifax’s Pier 21 to find a new life. Their first stop: Luscar, Alta., a now abandoned mining town roughly 200 kilometres west of Edmonton. They would then move to Vancouver Island, initially living on farms near Duncan in Fairbridge and Cobble Hill. Felicita worked with animals, making cheese, cleaning barns and milking cows. Eventually, they settled in Oak Bay in 1963. There, she would begin cleaning houses, offices, and banks to make ends meet.
“Things were really really hard. Money was tight. Food was tight,” recalls Shane. Jesus, who held a job painting boats in the Victoria Harbour, would suffer several workplace accidents and would require Felicita’s care. Due to economic circumstances, they would only have one son, Jose.
Felicita began working as the SUB custodian at the then newly-minted Gordon Head campus in 1967. At the time, UVic had only been a university for four years. Campus life was small and intimate, with only around 2 000 students.
Felicita took pride in her work, and did not put up with nonsense from students. As remembered by many, she had a great sense of humour and was always ready to reciprocate kindness to students who spent their time in the SUB.
“She kept quite a personal ownership of that building and she was very very dedicated,” said David Clode, long-time former general manager at the SUB.
At one point, a manager decided to rotate janitors to different buildings, disconnecting Felicita from her position at the SUB. But with the ensuing outcry from the student body, the decision only lasted about a week.
“Council passed a motion basically urging that the Director of Games and Grounds reverse their decision, override the Manager of Janitorial Services and bring Mrs. Gomez back to the SUB,” said Clode. “Ultimately, that worked.”
During Felicita’s evening shifts, she would talk to students who remained there after school hours. In time, she became a confidant to many.
”Often it was just small talk, but she would always ask how they were doing and then sit and listen if they were not doing as well, or were missing their families being away from home the first time,” said alumnus Eric Hargreaves.
Now a respected neurophysiologist based in New Jersey, he’s impressed by the vivid impression that Felicita left on his memory despite it being almost 40 years ago.
“[Her] listening and chatting was a simple act of kindness, but for many who may have felt overwhelmed, or isolated, it meant the world,” said Hargreaves.
Remembered as a woman who was socially progressive and ahead of her time on matters of racism and homophobia due to her philosophy of unconditional care, Felicita cared for students like they were her own grandchildren.
Two former UVic students credit their marriage and three children to Felicita’s intervention during a particularly rocky part of their relationship. Catherine Novak remembers Felicita chastising her once she found out that Novak had dumped her boyfriend. Felicita thought that Novak had made a terrible mistake and made her opinion known. The couple would make up. When Novak got engaged a few weeks later, Felicita was the first to know — even before the couple’s own parents.
“At age 18, we thought we were grown-ups and ready to rule the world,” remembers Von Schulmann of his early days at UVic. “[Felicita was] the one who would give us advice and opinions that we may not have wanted to hear but that we needed to hear,” he said.
When she wasn’t going through the halls with a long handled broom, engaging with students, or zapping graffiti off the women’s bathroom off with a rag and a spray bottle filled with rubbing alcohol, Felicita would retire to her janitorial shack, which was covered in photos of the British royal family. (She had a “never-ending fascination” for the British royalty, particularly Princess Diana.) She was an avid listener of CFUV, regularly tuning into the campus radio station with a portable radio gifted by a student that she carried around during her cleaning shifts.
As the SUB underwent a major building expansion in the late 1970s, Felicita’s responsibilities grew. But she would also be recognized for her contributions to the UVic student body, when the student union — known then as the AMS — decided to name a newly-renovated liquor lounge next to the SUB pub after their beloved custodian.
“It was instantly popular,” said Hargreaves, regarding the naming decision. “It was our fun prank to name it using her first name, because everyone knew her as Mrs. Gomez. Her first name also was used to recognize her specifically and uniquely as herself and not by the job or her role as Mrs. Gomez,” Hargreaves previously wrote in 2012.
Clode recalls that the committee members in charge of naming the lounge may have rejected all the other submissions after submitting Felicita’s name.
When the student union watering hole was relocated to its current location in 1996, all of it would be called Felicita’s.
In 2012, the University of Victoria Students’ Society (UVSS) held a contest to rename Felicita’s as part of an effort to pass a referendum to fund a building expansion, with an option to keep Felicita’s or to rename the pub to “the Burrow.” Students launched a wildcat campaign to keep the name. In the end, students voted overwhelmingly in favour of keeping the name.
Another of Felicita’s grandsons, Jay Gomez, who lives in Brisbane, Australia, recalls running into a former UVic student who knew Felicita. Upon learning that Felicita was Jay’s grandmother, she squealed and told him the impact that Felicita had in her life.
Long after her 1989 retirement, UVic alumni would run into Felicita in her Oak Bay neighbourhood and pick up the friendships that began on campus where they left off, at times more than 20 years earlier.
Felicita joined her family in Crowsnest Pass, Alta. after her husband’s death in 2006. There, she stopped gardening, but would continue knitting socks for her grandchildren and great-grandchildren well into her old age.
After the memorial service, Shane was sitting inside Felicita’s, surrounded by friends and family. Students were spread out at the tables, oblivious to the fact that Felicita’s grandson was sitting amongst them.
He mused about how he would like his grandmother to be remembered by the UVic community. The university had been good to his grandmother, Shane decided. There was nothing owed. It would be nice if his grandmother’s name was pronounced properly (fel-i-cee-ta). But more importantly, Shane said, he hopes that people remember the story and the person behind the name of UVic’s campus pub, Felicita’s.