Obituary: Cara Joy Hughes

Cara Joy Hughes, 1932 - 2021

Cara Joy died October 20, 2021. The following is based on some reminiscences she shared with a friend and neighbour.

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 (1956).

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 with Harvard's red robes for her Ph.D., 1968

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 maths 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.

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

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.

Cara Joy in retirement: dogs, books, her cabin, rowing her dingy ‘Flotsam’, arguing local causes and enjoying Salt Spring fine fare (CJ's t-shirt reads Outstanding in my field' - how apt for a remarkable life).

October 26, 2021 9:05 AM

  • Brenda Guiled says:

    Such a beautiful tribute.Thank you. She touched so many lives, including mine in a small way, through our shared time on the board of Island Pathways board.

    A Celebration of Life, should there be one, will need a big venue and a good few hours, as we trade bits we knew about the good works of this kaleidescopic powerhouse of a woman and great spirit.

  • loubelle says:

    I knew Cara J thru the short lived Senior's Book Group.
    A truly remarkable, lovely lady
    Also I knew her thru her driving for Seniors
    She will be missed
    What a life!!
    Ly6nda Turner

  • Rozie says:

    I'm sad I never met her.

  • ch says:

    I lived on Salt Spring for over 25 years and I read the exchange about once a week. For some reason I was thinking about Cara Joy this evening and then hours later I came across her obituary. What a beautiful tribute to a remarkable woman. I love the photos ... the cabin she often talked about and ... is that Gus in Floatsum? My husband wrote a chapter in his book about housesitting for Cara Joy and looking after Gus when she went to England to that research. Chapter 18 ... Gone to the Dogs ... is about Gus. Almost Paradise by Dan Mooney. Should still be a copy on the library. Claire Heffernan Quadra Island

  • havies says:

    This 'sister' certainly leaves an ongoing legacy to all those who were gifted to be with her - no matter how! Much gratitude.

  • Patti Taylor says:

    What a wonderful tribute, thank you. I enjoyed Cara Joy for years while doing her hair. I will miss her tremendously, she was a remarkable woman.
    Patti Taylor