One of seven children, Kathleen (Kay) Grouhel (nee Rawlick) grew up on a farm in the small community of Willingdon near Edmonton, Alberta. Born on October 17, 1919 of a Canadian born mother and a father who had immigrated to Canada from Austria by himself at fourteen years of age, Kay described herself in a 1984 interview with the Chronicle as a rebel and the only one of her siblings who would talk back to their father. In spite of this, they had a good relationship and she credited much of her interest in politics to him. Although her father felt girls didn’t need education since they would soon be married, Kay did attend the University of Alberta for a year before her money ran out. She then took a job in Edmonton as a sales clerk at Woodward’s and later did some accounting.
An unsuccessful date at a roller skating rink led to a meeting with her future husband and eventual move to Ladysmith. Peeved with her roller skating partner, she decided to ask a stranger to skate during a ladies choice. The stranger was Joe Grouhel, an aircraft engine mechanic stationed with the RCAF at Edmonton. They were married in June, 1944 and when the war ended they headed for Joe’s home town of Ladysmith where Joe worked in the family business with his father, a garage.
The Grouhels were early pioneers to the Ladysmith area. Joe’s grandparents, Louis and Mary Grouhel had first immigrated to Northfield from France where he had worked in fishing and the mines in Wellington and Extension before coming to Ladysmith in 1902. Due the 1909 explosion in Extension, Louis quit the mines and bought 160 acres in the Diamond area. Named Belz after Mary’s birthplace in Brittany, France, the property was to become one of the largest dairies on the island. Eight children were born to Louis and Mary; Joseph, Louie, Hans, Josephine, Jeanne, Mary, Rose and Hansie. Kay’s father in law, Joseph Sr. married Eva Shaw in 1919 and they had four children; Joseph Jr. (Kay’s husband), William, Jacqueline and Ronald.
Joe began to have heart problems while running the garage and Kay, with the encouragement of her friend Donalda Smith, began to teach sewing classes at night as a means to supplement the family income.
Kay and Joe had two sons, Bob and Brian. Having to roll a baby stroller down French Street sparked her initial interest in local politics. It was a sea of mud and she recalled in her 1984 interview that she thought to herself that one day she would run for council to get it paved. This initial interest bloomed when she became the spokesperson for a group of families opposing a controversial zoning proposal on Davis Road. Irked by her inability to get information she decided to run for council and although unsuccessful in this attempt, she did win an alderman’s seat in 1962 and 1963. Unfortunately, as she put it, the men welcomed her, put her on committees, and then ignored her opinions. She felt she wasn’t accomplishing anything so decided in 1964 to run for mayor against incumbent Len Ryan who had held the position for 17 years. Running on a platform of progress accusing the current council of failing to take advantage of senior government development funds and failing to attract industry, Kay won by 716 to 520 votes. Once she was mayor she had no difficulty obtaining the cooperation of aldermen. She was to have a distinguished career as mayor for twelve years including amongst her accomplishments the passage of an overall zoning bylaw and a major sewage improvement bylaw to move the outfall away from the beach.
Kay also spearheaded acquisition of Transfer Beach, Ladysmith’s jewel. On learning that Canadian Collieries was willing to sell a 14 acre portion of Transfer beach for $60,000, she negotiated with the company and got them to settle for $50,000 payable in terms rather than a lump sum. Canadian Pacific still owned the heart of the beach, about 3 or 4 acres and they didn’t want to sell. Fortunately, the CPR subsidiary, Pacific Logging was applying for a routine permit to erect dolphins or posts offshore for tying up log booms. Grouhel knew the permit could be delayed if the upshore land was being considered for rezoning so she and council considered rezoning the land to Commercial. The city got the land for $12,000 after Kay whittled down the original asking price of $14,000. Using heavy equipment operator trainees from Malaspina College to clean up the site, it was transformed into the lovely waterfront park it is today.
Her other accomplishments include the building of the fire hall and public works buildings, acquiring the cities first new fire truck in years, the planting of dogwood trees along the highway through town and the redesign of the sidewalks downtown to improve appearance and increase pedestrian safety. This last gave her the nickname of “Concrete Kay”. During her term as mayor Kay also became the first woman president of the Union of BC Municipalities in its 70 year history.
Kay did run as Social Credit candidate for MLA in 1972 but was defeated by New Democrat Bob Strachan.
After losing the election for mayor in 1975 to Bob Stuart, Kay embarked on her next career, selling real estate. She soon became the top salesperson for Block Brothers becoming a Diamond Club member with over a million dollars in sales. She finished her twelve years of real estate experience with Nanaimo Realty. On the death of her husband Joe in 1990, she retired to Victoria where she lived until passing away at Victoria General Hospital on August 13, 2010 following complications from a stroke.
The Grouhel family once owned 840 1st Avenue and lived there in an upstairs apartment.