Those who know Terry Guiel know he is rarely, if ever, lost for words.
On Tuesday (August 16), the executive director of the Peterborough Downtown Business Improvement Area (DBIA) struggled to put a simple sentence together as he remembered his friend and longtime DBIA board member Erica Cherney.
Cherney, 84, died hours earlier at her Peterborough home, succumbing to her second battle with cancer. She was surrounded by family, including her children Mike, Karen, and Rich.
“Extreme sadness … it’s hard to lose such a strong woman who had battled and come back from this great enemy of cancer,” noted Guiel, alluding, as many have, to the words written on the back of her business card — ‘Never underestimate the power of a pissed off woman.’
Just recently, Guiel was able to visit privately with Cherney at her home. Her passing has made his memory of that sit-down even more poignant.
“She had a classical guitar, so I asked her if she’d like to hear a few songs,” he recalls.
“I played a bunch of songs. I sang Edelweiss and a very naughty song. She thoroughly enjoyed it; she had a smile on her face the whole time. I think it was therapeutic for us both.”
While distressed to receive word of Cherney’s passing, Guiel admits it wasn’t a complete surprise.
“You can see when the body has had enough,” he says.
For her part, former Peterborough mayor Sylvia Sutherland, in Huntsville on a work assignment, heard of the passing of her close friend via an email from one of her children.
“I knew I was going to be hearing this news soon,” says Ms Sutherland.
“I saw Erica very briefly Saturday afternoon (August 13) and I realized then that would be last time I would see her. As I left, I said to Ricky (Sutherland’s pet name for Cherney), ‘There’s good news … Trump is losing.’ I got the biggest smile from her and I think a little giggle too.”
Like Guiel, Sutherland praises Cherney’s impact and influence on various sectors of Peterborough.
“Particularly with businesswomen … she was so supportive,” notes Sutherland.
“You always knew where you stood with Ricky. We didn’t always agree on issues but that never interfered with our friendship. The last few years, I had been sending her jokes on short people. She said, ‘I’ve always enjoyed (local economist) Tom Phillips … we literally saw eye to eye.'”
Another warm memory centres around Cherney’s penchant for a good Scotch, Sutherland referencing her friend’s “four o’clock Scotch tea” custom as part and parcel of her unique persona.
A native of Ottawa, Cherney was born Erica Cohen on February 3, 1932 and graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce from Carleton University in 1943. Come 1955, she was off to California with her first husband.
In 1967, her marriage over, Cherney eventually returned to Ottawa with her three children. There she renewed acquaintances with Harry Cherney, a family friend and business associate. In 1971, they married and moved to Peterborough where Harry oversaw a chain of furniture stores.
What followed for Cherney were years of community service at the highest and most impactful levels: chair of Trent University’s board of governors from 1980 to 1984; positions with the boards of the Peterborough Family YMCA, Showplace and the DBIA; and work on behalf of the Greater Peterborough Economic Council and its successor, the Greater Peterborough Area Economic Development Corporation.
And if there was a cause to be helped, Cherney frequently rolled up her sleeves with gusto. The 2005 Calendar Girls project for flood relief dollars saw her pose by flood-ravaged Jackson Creek, dressed only in a raincoat and rubber boots.
As a savvy businesswoman, Cherney had few peers in Peterborough. After Harry passed in 1984, the Cherney furniture business was sold but his estate retained a number of properties which led to the formation of Cherney Realty. Still in place today, that entity still owns and manages several city buildings. Right up until cancer laid her low for a second time, Cherney was an active in the management of the company.
Accolades that came Cherney’s way number many, including YMCA Woman of the Year (1987), Peterborough Citizen of the Year (1999), an Honourary Doctorate from Trent University (2005), a lifetime achievement award from Homegrown Homes (2011), and the Queen’s Jubilee Medal (2012).
In addition, in 2006, the Community Counselling and Resource Centre started the Erica Cherney Inspiration Fund in recognition of Cherney’s commitment to active citizenship. In 2015, she received Carleton University’s Humanitarian of the Year Alumni Award and, just this past May, Cherney was inducted into the Peterborough Business Hall of Fame.
“There’s another group that has lost someone very, very important to them and that is the Jewish community in Peterborough,” notes Sutherland.
Both Guiel and Sutherland agree that while the term “legacy” doesn’t always fully apply and is often over-the-top, that’s not the case here. In addition, for Sutherland, there remains the memory of her friend’s personal attributes.
“She had that wonderful smile … she was bright, she was feisty, she was generous, she had a good sense of humour,” notes Sutherland.
Guiel, meanwhile, says there’s “no chance” Cherney won’t be long remembered for her contributions, both personally and professionally.
“I think it’s really going to hit me at the next (DBIA) board meeting and we’ll see her empty chair,” says Guiel.
“I’m going to try and find a way that we can honour her memory, her ceaseless dedication to not just the downtown but to the entire community. We’ll talk to her family when things settle down and see what that could be.”
Like Sutherland, Guiel’s memories on this day are of a friend who supported him.
“My fondest memory is playing (music) in a pub at one in the morning and in comes Erica, with Beth McMaster or Ann Farquharson or some of her other friends, or often on her own. She’d grab a Scotch and then she’d pull out this little tiny harmonica. That was just so whimsical.”
“Erica is someone you look at and ask, ‘Who can follow that?'”
Cherney’s public funeral service will be held at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, August 17, at the Beth Israel Synagogue, 775 Weller Street, followed by a private family burial at Little Lake Cemetery. A public reception at the synagogue will then be held after the burial.
Shiva will be observed in Toronto at the home of Mike and Shari Cherney at 47 Shallmar Boulevard in Toronto. Visitation hours are 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. on Thursday August 18th (shiva minyan at 7:30 p.m.), 2 to 4 p.m. on Friday August 19th, 9 to 10:30 p.m. on Saturday, August 20th (shiva minyan at 9:15 p.m.), and 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. on Sunday, August 21st (shiva minyan at 7:30 p.m.)
Condolences can be sent care of Mike and Shari Cherney (47 Shallmar Boulevard, Toronto, Ontario M6C 2K1). In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Beth Israel Synagogue, the Israel Scout Federation, or the Peterborough Foundation.