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Ulrichsen: I'll never forget the day I saw Princess Di in person

Sudbury.com's Heidi Ulrichsen was an 11-year-old Girl Guide when she saw the iconic princess at Science North
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We all know the story. On Aug. 31, 1997 — 20 years ago today — Diana, Princess of Wales, was fatally injured in a car crash in Paris. Her companion, Dodi Fayed, and the car's driver, Henri Paul, were also killed in the crash.

An inquest later attributed the accident to negligent driving by Paul and to the pursuing paparazzi. Diana was so young — just 36 years old.

Her death prompted a worldwide outpouring, and millions watched her televised funeral on Sept. 6, which featured a performance by Elton John.

All of this, of course, happened far away from Sudbury, but perhaps it had a bit more of an impact locally than most celebrity deaths would.

Because there was a day when Di's story merged with ours.

On Oct. 24, 1991, years before their famously unhappy marriage ended in divorce, Princess Diana and Prince Charles visited Sudbury. Large crowds greeted them at Science North.

Charles then went on a tour of Inco operations and Cambrian College, while Diana officially opened the Daffodil Lodge at the Northeast Cancer Centre and visited Genevra House.

A day later, Prince William and Prince Harry visited Science North.

Northern Life put out a Royal Visit Commemorative Edition a few days after the visit, complete with extensive coverage. Diana seemed a big hit with Sudburians, with many raving in the paper about her style.

Perhaps most touching was her kindness to sick children at the cancer centre and to residents of Genevra House, a local shelter for women and children fleeing family violence.

“After the formal greeting and welcome in the lobby of the shelter, Diana was escorted into the child/youth room, where she met three women and six children,” an article by then-reporter and future Northern Ontario Business and Sudbury Living Magazine publisher Patricia Mills reads.

“'She just walked right in and plunked herself down in a chair, and started talking to the children,'” a shelter staff member is quoted as saying.

I was an 11-year-old Girl Guide during the Royal visit. 

My Guide troop, along with my sister's Brownie troop, my mom and my maternal grandparents — who had travelled to Sudbury for the occasion — were among those in the flag-waving crowds at Science North.

I don't remember much about the ceremony except it was long and I had fun joking around with my friends, as kids do.

After the ceremony, we drove back home to Copper Cliff. Because, guess what? Before his tour of Inco operations, Prince Charles stopped in Copper Cliff Park to shake hands with students at Copper Cliff Public School, where I was attending Grade 6 at the time.

Although I was within a metre of him, I didn't personally shake Charles' hand, but several of my classmates did. I remember one saying she was never going to wash her hand again.

My classmate Mike O'Brien's picture was taken as he shook the prince's hand, and that photo hangs at CCPS to this day. Mike and I are now both a year older than Diana was when she died.

I also have family friends who were among the children at Science North when William and Harry, the young princes, visited the next day. I'm sure many people who were in Sudbury at that time have also a story to tell about the Royal visit of 1991.

Twenty years after Diana's death, the British Royal family is at a crossroads. Queen Elizabeth II is 91 years old, and the crown will surely be passed down to Prince Charles soon.

Is the world ready for that? Will Canada adopt Charles as our king? Are we even interested, as a country, in keeping the British monarchy as a formal part of our government? Only time will tell.

For their part, Prince Harry and Prince William have spoken out recently about the devastating impact their mother's death had on them as teens. No matter what you think of the monarchy, you've got to feel for them.

“My mother had just died, and I had to walk a long way behind her coffin, surrounded by thousands of people watching me while millions more did on television,” Harry said recently.

“I don’t think any child should be asked to do that, under any circumstances. I don’t think it would happen today.”

If she hadn't died in that terrible car crash, Diana would be 56 years old today. Perhaps she'd be remarried (hopefully happily this time).

She'd be the doting grandmother of two beautiful grandchildren (Princess Charlotte is a month older than my little niece, also named Charlotte).

Today, on the anniversary of Diana's death, let's just remember the woman who once spent time meeting with Sudburians — including some of our most vulnerable — and died far too young.

Heidi Ulrichsen is the associate content editor of Northern Life and Sudbury.com.



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