The Pioneer pays tribute to veteran graphics guru

By Steve Hubrecht

Emily Rawbon was the heart and soul of the Columbia Valley Pioneer, seemingly forever. She was the paper’s graphic designer and production manager for 17 years — an eternity in the world of community newspapers. For nearly two decades, the way the paper looks has been Emily’s doing. Anyone who has picked up the newspaper, perhaps unwittingly lured in by snappy graphic flourishes (Valentine’s Day hearts the latest example) has seen her handiwork.

Emily passed away in early May. It’s hard to describe in words the loss to the community and to the Pioneer. In many small, rural towns, the newspaper is the hub of the community — the place where facts are shifted from rumours, where the life of the town plays out. And if the Pioneer is the hub of the valley, then Emily was the hub of the Pioneer.

Many a time — last-ditch, deadline-approaching — Emily did the impossible and pulled a graphics-and-design rabbit out of a hat, with characteristic sangfroid. But she was more than a very tall (well over six feet) cool-as-a-cucumber graphics guru. She was an accomplished musician, a dedicated volunteer, a Volkswagen Bug driver, a lover of animals (particularly her dog Page and her cat Gizmo), a tech expert, a friend, and a teacher.

Emily’s love of the outdoors is what first pulled her west from Ontario, where she grew up. After a stint working in Banff, she decided to make the mountains her home, and settled in the Columbia Valley. Hiking, running and camping brought her a measure of relaxation and a change of pace from her busy career. She once explained that her favourite spot in the entire universe was the Yoho Valley — the soaring granite walls, tumbling Takakkaw Falls, deep green forest, and open skies.

Pioneer publisher Amanda Nason recalled starting with the newspaper in 2015, when Emily handled two newspapers per week and too many magazines in a year to count. “To say it was busy would be an understatement (yet) Emily got it done. After each project — a sigh and statement: ‘another miracle performed, what’s next?’ She was incredibly talented,” said Nason.  

Former Pioneer editor Lorene Keitch agreed that Emily was a great graphic designer, “calmly working her way through the stack of ads and changes each week. I often liked to swap things around to give me a layout I wanted to work with; Emily patiently adjusted to my wild ideas and helped me achieve them without complaint.” 

Keitch recalled how Emily would relay the antics of her little cat Gizmo when he caused mischief. “I remember her coming in with scratches from the semi-feral cat, and she laughed them off. She loved the cat, regardless of its actions.”

Page (Emily’s dog) was also dear to Emily, but really she had a soft spot for any furry creature. That led her to help with the Invermere Companion Animal Network (ICAN) calendars. 

Former Pioneer proofreader Melanie Remple remembered working on those calendars, saying “I appreciated Emily’s quirky sense of humour and willingness to share InDesign tips and tricks with me.”

Former Pioneer staff member Erin Knutson said Emily was always there to lend a helping hand when she needed it. “Emily was an original, there was no one like her . . . she was kind, encouraging and humorous during more than one arduous deadline.”

Valley resident Anne Jardine has fond memories of volunteering with Emily – both were on the board of the Steamboat Mountain Music Society, which hosts the annual Steamboat Mountain Music Festival in Edgewater.

“She was always there, making time for the festival, no matter how busy she was. She did all the graphics for us, and there were many times we were going back-and-forth at the midnight hour,” said Jardine. “On the board, we would often have discussions, trying to solve problems. Emily would bring a creative approach that sometimes was the key to figuring out the issue. She could listen to everybody and synthesize it. She was really good at that.”

Of course, through Steamboat, Jardine became familiar with Emily as a musician –  as a solo act, with her Chisel Peak Blues Band bandmates Ian Wilson and James Reimer, and later on with Sylvia Powers and Patricia Dodich (who formed a trio with Emily).

“Emily was musical glue,” recalled Jardine. “With Chisel Peak Blues Band, she could take a riff and embroider the heck out of it, until it was pure beauty. And she could still fit that into the song. It was magical the way she could make that work.”

Jardine also remembered working with Emily during production of ‘The Visionary and the Ghost of Pynelogs’, an Edwardian operetta-style play staged in 2015.

Emily was part of ‘the Columbines’, a female chorus group in the play, and even though Emily was just starting to learn about vocal harmony, she quickly became the central part of ‘the Columbines’.

“She was the anchor, we really leaned on her,” said Jardine. 

“Emily was just a great guitar player, and she had a lovely singing voice,” said Ian Wilson, Emily’s Chisel Peak Blues Band bandmate. “She composed some great songs and she really was a big influence on myself and James (Reimer).”

Keitch reminisced: “One time, a few of us from the paper went down to watch her perform at a local restaurant. It was incredible to watch her; you could see her transform from someone who often tried to blend into the background, into someone who was where she belonged. “On stage, she looked at home. Her voice sang strong and clear, her guitar playing was beautiful. On stage, she was happy, and everyone watching her could feel it.”

Knutson recalled singing together often with Emily, while Emily strummed her guitar, through almost a decade of friendship. 

“She became someone I could rely on to lend an ear, be silly with, and go on adventurous road trips in her beloved silver (Volkswagen) Bug. Emily called me EJ for Erin Joy simply because she sometimes said I was too serious. She was someone I could be myself with. That was the greatest gift,” said Knutson. 

The Pioneer office was frequently full of musical banter courtesy of Emily. Co-workers learned of her affection for Willie Nelson’s battered guitar, and her strongly held opinion that the Beatles only started to be interesting upon releasing Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967. Late on deadline nights she would play tunes on her computer – classical, pop, rock, jazz, folk, anything — and these became the soundtrack of the Pioneer production schedule. They usually kept a harried smile on her face.

“Emily deserved a life of happiness. And in spite of the obstacles in her life, she sought to find that happiness,” Keitch said. “I ran into her a couple years back. She was out walking, and looked great. She was smiling, and energized, and we talked for a good while to catch up. Then off she sauntered into the evening sun. That is how I will remember her. Smiling, and choosing joy.”

With a heavy heart, Knutson said, “I will forever miss my friend, the joy and laughter she brought to my life, and the dreams we used to share. Emily was unique, brilliant and will be deeply missed by all she touched in this life.”