'Grand lady' championed country music
THE Canadian country music industry lost a champion earlier this week.
The Winnipeg Free Press ~ June 13, 2009
Former Manitoba businesswoman, Elizabeth (Ma) Henning passed away at her home in Campbell River, B.C., leaving behind a legacy of national proportion.

"She was a grand, dynamic lady. She certainly did a lot for Manitoba country and Canadian country music as well -- at the Downs (Motor Hotel) in Winnipeg and later here (in Brandon), at The North 40," said Bill Hillman, who along with his wife Sue-On used to play on stages owned by Henning.

"She was a fan of music and a great supporter of local and all country musical talent, and she left her mark on Manitoba. She put so many of the Winnipeg artists on the map, but looked beyond the Perimeter, which we really appreciated."

Henning started booking country acts into her Winnipeg hotel because "I figured if I had to sit and listen to music, I wanted to listen to something I enjoy," she told a reporter in 1986. Blue jeans were reportedly not allowed in her establishments, and it wasn't until the early '80s -- around the time the movie Urban Cowboy was released -- that male patrons were permitted to wear hats.

Members of Winnipeg's country community remember Henning as a tireless champion with a no-nonsense work ethic. "You didn't mess with Ma," says veteran musician and broadcaster Ray St. Germain. "She was a kind woman and she was very fair, but she was all business." "She had a mean look that could scare that crap out of you, but behind that toughness was a really big heart," says Ray Martin, former Manitoba Country Music Association president and a singer-songwriter who played Henning's venues.

In her 76 years, the Russian-born Henning tried her hand at many professions including nursing, real estate, hotel management and eventually turned to the music industry. Following in her mother's footsteps is Heidi Howarth, general manager of the Trails West Inn in Brandon. "She did a lot for country music. She also had a record company and put a lot of money in it -- there were growing pains. It was called Downs Record Company and she even had set up in Nashville and explored the record industry back in the '80s," Howarth said.

In 1985, Henning was the president of the Canadian Country Music Association and the following year she spearheaded the awards show's live television coverage in Winnipeg -- a first for the CCMAs -- and chaired the week-long celebrations. In 2008, the CCMA presented Henning with the Hank Smith Award of Excellence for contributions to the Canadian country music industry.

Mark Smith of the Poverty Plainsmen. says of Ma: "She really loved giving new talent a chance," he said. "She gave us a chance to play the North 40 when we weren't ready to play there. She hired us anyway, tuned us in, told us what we were doing wrong. And you know, it was good advice." One of the first acts to play at Henning's Downs hotel and will be playing a song at her funeral today in Campbell River.

To leave tributes for Henning's family, visit mem.com.

-- Brandon Sun, with files from Carolin Vesely
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Copyright 2001/2004/2009 Bill Hillman