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Journalist, activist June Callwood dies at 82

When June Callwood was diagnosed with cancer in Sept. 2003, she was given a life expectancy of six months. The woman known variously as a "secular saint" and a "general nuisance," defied that prognosis for almost four years. Early Saturday, she admitted defeat and died, with daughters Jill and Jesse at her bedside, in the palliative care unit of Princess Margaret Hospital in downtown Toronto. She was 82.

At her last public appearance on a wintry evening in early March, Ms. Callwood arrived at the Jane Mallet Theatre in Toronto, wearing a white shawl over a black trouser suit, just as the lights dimmed. It was the annual awards ceremony for The Writers' Trust and she was one of the honorees - for distinguished contribution. Never one to let a moment escape that could be turned to the advantage of others, Ms. Callwood, reminded her admirers that "If you see an injustice being committed, you aren't an observer, you are a participant." That didn't mean you had to intervene, she explained, but you couldn't pretend that you weren't a part of what was happening in front of you. And having delivered her activist mantra, Ms. Callwood, breathing heavily because of cancer's inexorable devastation, left the stage for the final time.

Journalist, civic activist and human rights campaigner, June Callwood wrote some 30 books, more than 1,500 magazine articles, close to 500 columns for The Globe and Mail and hosted at least two television shows, In Touch and Callwood's National Treasures. She helped establish 50 organizations - that's more than most people join in their lifetimes. The institutions range across the arts, human rights, civil liberties and social welfare. In recompense she has been given nearly 20 honorary degrees, named a Companion of the Order of Canada, the country's highest civil award, and had a street, a park and Ontario's award for volunteerism named after her.

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Life itself inspired her activism: The Depression, the Second World War, marriage, motherhood and dealing with the world her kids encountered have all had an effect on her. She has been hard up, made her way as a high-school drop out, suffered through the death of one of her children and paced hospital corridors while two others recovered from life-threatening accidents and struggled against diabolical illnesses.

Her mother and father were young and inept as parents, so early on she learned "to take care of myself and live in my imagination, and as soon as I could find books, I was reading them." She also had two grandfathers "who were crazy about me" so she "didn't miss not having parents at all - not in the least" because she was loved and praised. "I grew up thinking that's how things are, people take care of one another and you have to do that to be a good person; you have to be available to help others. And I also grew up fearless, so that helped."

Her self-confidence took a perennial tumble when it came to her vocation. "Fear of failure is huge with me in writing. I have never written something I thought was good enough," she told me in an interview in her suburban living room in November. She almost never reads anything she has published because she thinks all of it could be improved. Of all the books she has written, she has never attempted a memoir. When pushed, she admitted, "I'm not very introspective. I don't think there are a lot of complications about me." Besides, she is not sure she could write it without colouring her memories and that the reporter in her wouldn't allow.

June Rose Callwood was born in Chatham Ontario on June 2, 1924, the elder of two daughters of Harold (Byng) and Gladys (née Lavoie) Callwood. Her mother's family had settled in Quebec City in 1650 and could claim some Native blood; her father's ancestry was British. He was a plumber by trade and an entrepreneur by inclination. "My father was a rake who made life very hard for my mother. She eloped with him at 16 to escape her convent school," she told Sylvia Fraser in a profile in Toronto Life in 2005.

She spent her first two years in Tilbury where her grandfather, Harold Callwood, a magistrate, lived. When she was two, her family moved to Belle River, a French-Canadian village near Windsor. "I have only to see that sandy flatland, with the sky like an overturned teacup and I feel so exhilarated," she said later. Her father established the Superior Tinning and Retinning Company and set about, with his wife's help, to recycle rusty milk cans, using a re-coating process he'd invented.

Ms. Callwood was very fond of her grandfathers. Grandfather Bill Lavoie was a bootlegger who made a lot of money running liquor across the Detroit River into the United States during Prohibition and built himself a massive stone house in Belle River and operated a fancy restaurant next door. Her other grandfather, Harold Callwood, a judge, was completely different - a portly Presbyterian - but he too showered her with affection at his home in Tilbury, where June spent summers after her family moved to Belle River. "On hot afternoons, he moved his judicial court to his breezy veranda, and I would sit on his knee, dozing on his tummy - the informality of that cannot be imagined nowadays." When she was four years old he rewrote his will to put in money for her - a girl - to go to law school, a fact that still seemed astonishing to her 78 years later. He died when June was 12; her law school provision was the only formal bequest in the will, but the family came to her and she agreed to give it up.

She entered Belle River's Catholic school at age six and was immediately accelerated into Grade three, a mixed blessing. She liked being exposed to new and harder work, but she was out of place with her classmates because she was so much younger. An avid reader, she consumed the books in the local library, acquiring general knowledge "so I wouldn't feel so helpless."

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By the time June was 10, her parent's business had gone bust, a casualty of The Depression. They moved to Kitchener, a large town about 250 kilometres east of Belle River, and lived in an apartment above a store. June went to Victoria Public School, where she excelled academically and at swimming and diving and became a member of the local swim team at age 11. When she was 12, her parents sent her to board at Notre Dame Academy in Waterdown, about an hour's drive from their home. She stayed only one year before her mother (partly because they couldn't pay the fees and partly because June became fervently religious and was compulsively saying her rosary) switched her daughter to the secular Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate. According to a family story, June had barely moved back home before her mother grabbed her rosary, her catechism and her prayer cards and tossed them in the rubbish.

The three year age difference between June and her classmates made school life very awkward, but she did take some solace from being told by the principal that she had the highest IQ they'd ever tested. A bigger loss was in the offing. Faced with overwhelming expenses, Mr. Callwood skipped out on his family in 1937 and went west, where he found work threshing wheat at harvest time on prairie farms for a dollar a day. June's mother, an accomplished seamstress, took in sewing, but she and her daughters were often one step ahead of the bailiff. There was one three day stretch when her mother had no food for them and dug up some potatoes from somebody else's garden. Her daughters were so hungry that they couldn't wait for the potatoes to be boiled and ate them raw.

Since reading was free, June worked her way through the holdings of the Kitchener Public Library. Being poor and the deprivations that came with the Second World War, gave her a work ethic and a compulsion that "you pay your bills and you don't get into debt" and made her conscious of "being grateful for what you've got and respecting it and making do."

The army reported Mr. Callwood's whereabouts to her mother after he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Engineers in 1939. She piled her daughters on a bus and joined him in a rooming house in Regina. After he was shipped overseas in 1940, they moved back east to Brantford. The Second World War improved the family's situation because, with so many men overseas, her mother found a job as a bank teller. Meanwhile June attended Brantford Collegiate, a school where she was comfortable socially and academically. The late television producer Ross McLean was a classmate. He described her as "a definite original" and said: "Her beauty and her openness caught our fancy, for sure, but so did her unconventional ways."

Athletically she was a freestyle, backstroke and high-diving champion and a cheerleader, but she was also honing her journalistic skills by working on the staff of the high school newspaper and entering, and winning, a short story contest. A man named Judge Sweet gave her the prize and told her if she ever needed a job, she should look him up. Before the prize had a chance to collect dust, she had taken him up on his offer. After a furious quarrel with her mother (who had complained she was tired of supporting her 16-year-old daughter) June quit high school and went to see Judge Sweet, who was on the board of directors of the Brantford Expositor, and asked him for a job.

He gave her a letter of introduction to the publisher who hired her as a proof reader at $7.50 a week. Because so many men were in the Armed Forces, Ms. Callwood was sometimes sent to report on events at the nearby bomber-pilot training base; many of the young officers fell for her coltish good looks. She once claimed that she had promised to marry 11 pilots, but all of them died in the war.

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In 1942 the Toronto Star offered her a job for $25 a week. "I was 18, but I looked about 12, despite the high heels, and when the editors saw me, they had no respect for me," she said later. She was hired to answer the mail and to write cut-lines. After two weeks she was fired because she wrote a smartass letter to a sergeant who had complained to the newspaper that she'd misidentified an army tank.

Then she applied to be a spitfire pilot, but was rejected by the Royal Canadian Air Force Women's Division because they didn't train women to fly. She was outraged. The Globe and Mail gave her a trial assignment covering an Ontario Medical Association convention at The Royal York Hotel, but her nerves got the better of her and she couldn't write. Don Carlson, a reporter for The Toronto Star took pity on her and wrote her piece after filing his own. After that break from a male reporter, she says she could never endorse second wave feminist rage at the oppressions of the patriarchal society.

On the strength of that OMA story, The Globe hired her as a general assignment reporter. About this time, she resolved her fractious relationship with her mother, who had moved to Toronto so that her younger daughter, Jane, could attend Oakwood Collegiate. The three women lived together for a time in a one-bedroom basement apartment, but the power balance had shifted because by then Ms. Callwood had a byline, her own income, and her mother's grudging respect.

She met Trent (Bill) Gardiner Frayne at The Globe although she had admired his photograph and his writing from her days at the Brantford Expositor. They were married in an Anglican ceremony on May 13, 1944. Ms. Callwood was 19 and wore a grey flannel suit and white hat. She didn't change her name because The Globe wanted to keep her on staff, and two reporters named Frayne, one male, the other female, would look suspicious in an era when married women were still expected to stay home.

What has it meant being married to Trent Frayne? "Everything," she replied immediately. "My dad was a rascal and I fell in love with him [Mr. Frayne]because he was a rock. He is an honourable man he's got integrity, he'll never let you down.

"I wanted somebody I could be safe with who I could count on and who wouldn't walk out in the middle of the night like my dad did, never be promiscuous, never lie - just an honourable man. And I got him and he was handsome as hell, which always counted in the early days of a relationship. What I didn't understand was going to be so important, was his sense of humour. He's hilarious. Dear with his children and the freaky thing was that it never occurred to him that his wife shouldn't work. He didn't have to be educated [on that issue]because it never crossed his mind."

She always referred to him as "my guy" and they called each other "dreamy."

The question of working became moot when Ms. Callwood became pregnant three months after the wedding. "I wanted babies, and I assumed I was going to be a marvellous mother." She quit work before her first child Jill Frayne, a social worker and writer (her memoir Starting Out in the Afternoon: A Mid-Life Journey into Wild Land was short listed for the Governor-General's Literary Award in 2002) was born on May 24, 1945. Motherhood, which Ms. Callwood embraced fulsomely, also turned her into a freelance writer as a way of earning money while staying home with her children. She wrote her first magazine article (for Liberty Magazine, earning $50) about Violet Milstead, the instructor who was teaching her how to fly a single engine Aeronica Superchief. She loved flying, but gave it up after almost becoming entangled in power lines one evening. The prospect of being seriously hurt or even killed was too alarming, given that she had one small child and was expecting another. Brant (Barney) was born May 31, 1948.

By comparison, writing was harmless. She produced her first article for Maclean's magazine, then a monthly, on the Leslie Bell Singers, an amateur women's choir, in June, 1947. Four years later Ms. Callwood and Mr. Frayne pieced together the down payment on a modest two-storey clapboard house in the west end of Toronto on a large maple shaded lot that was surrounded by farmland. By then they had a third child, Jesse (born May 15, 1951) now a cookbook writer and mother of four. Although that first house was renovated and expanded over the years, it remained their home until Ms. Callwood's death.

Family life in the Frayne/Callwood household was both stable and quirky. Both parents worked - and they did it mostly at home - so the house reverberated with the sounds of clacking typewriter keys. But both parents were also available to their children and deeply involved in their lives - which included church on Sunday and candle light at the dinner table and proper manners - all of the things that had been missing from Ms. Callwood's own upbringing. And then her children raised their offspring "totally differently" with "no rules" and "no dinnertime," she admitted wryly.

Eventually, she warmed up the relationship with her contrary father. After the war he invented a chicken eviscerating machine which made him gobs of money, more than enough to finance the purchase of a new Cadillac every year and a bottle of scotch every day. By chance she ran into him in the Empire State Building in 1955 on a birthday trip to New York City to celebrate her daughter Jill's tenth birthday. He had dyed his hair red, was wearing a huge diamond stickpin in his tie, another rock on his finger and had a call girl nibbling at his ear. What changed Ms. Callwood's view of her father, she said later, was the tender way he cared for his second wife, after she suffered a stroke. Because her sister spelled him one day a week he and his daughter began having lunch together and she found him kind, sentimental and optimistic.

She was a whirlwind of activity in the 1950s writing regularly for Maclean's in stories that varied from a profile of Marilyn Bell, the 16 year old girl who swam across Lake Ontario in 1954, the birth control pill, the death of the Avro Arrow and even the meaning of the universe.

She also began collaborating with her doctor, Dr. Marion Hilliard, by ghostwriting a monthly column under the doctor's name in Chatelaine, when Doris Anderson was the editor. "She was gay," Ms. Callwood said in an interview in her home in Nov., 2006, recalling a remark Dr. Hilliard's housekeeper had made about her employer and her partner: "They are such good friends that they sleep in the same bed." Dr. Hilliard wanted Ms. Callwood to say in a column on lovemaking in the magazine that "it doesn't matter whether you are the same sex or not," but "I was too scandalized to do it," admitted Ms. Callwood. They also wrote a column on menopause and "no general magazine, so far as we knew, had ever written the word, so she was breaking enough ground, without lesbian references." In 1957, Doubleday published A Woman Doctor Looks at Life and Love, a book that Ms. Callwood ghosted based on the long-running magazine column. It became a bestseller, was eventually translated into 40 languages, and launched Ms. Callwood on a prolific career as a ghostwriter for celebrities such as Barbara Walters, Otto Preminger and Canadian labour leader Bob White.

And then it all crashed around her. Just at the moment when her three kids were in school, she had a steady freelance income (if that is not an oxymoron) she was overcome by depression and found herself staring out the kitchen window, without no awareness that time was passing. She sought help from a therapist and, true to her journalistic calling she turned the experience into a book, Love, Hate, Fear & Anger and Other Lively Emotions, which was published in 1964 under her own name.

This decade saw the emergence of June Callwood, the social activist. Like so many other things in her life, it happened by chance because of a connection with one of her kids. Barney, in his late teens, was living in Yorkville, then a hippy section of Toronto just north of the intersection of Bloor and Yonge. Every so often he would bring home a friend who was on his uppers and in need of help. Ms. Callwood discovered that many of the people living rough on the streets of Yorkville were drug addicted runaways, who had dropped out of school and had few marketable and/or survival skills. This was the moment that radicalized her.

"When hard times came again to Canada in the 60s, I was so shocked because I had seen us get out of Depression and scarcity and people not having enough, and kids on freight trains going somewhere they thought they could make some money, and I thought now look at us. We all got toasters in the 50s and we all got bungalows in the 60s and then all of a sudden I got hit with the kids from Yorkville, and they had bad teeth and many of them had grown up in foster homes and they had come from all over and the community thought they were middle class kids who had dropped out of school. Our son Barney brought them home for dinner and I could tell the difference right away. These were kids from the 30s again and I thought what the hell is going on?"

Because she was a journalist with a recognized name she knew she had "a kind of credibility" even though she felt she didn't know what she was doing. She went around trying to all the big churches trying to find shelter for these kids and eventually founded Digger House, named after a group that had tried to establish self-supporting communes in England in the 1600s. A refuge in a city-owned house on Spadina Avenue, in mid-town Toronto, it opened early in 1968. She, herself, paid the first month's rent of $600, the equivalent of the money she would have earned after working for weeks on a magazine article.

Digger House was the first of several hostels she helped organize as she honed her pragmatic fundraising skills over the years. She believed it was "irresponsible" to start an organization that wasn't desperately needed or had a "vanity" appeal. Responding to a unique and pressing need gave her "a sense of authority," when appealing to the rich and powerful for help. "You get them on your side," she advised, by making them believe that "we are working on this together." Grandstanding, or trying to create an organization all on your own, was offensive and futile, in her opinion. "You have to get a gang," because otherwise "you aren't going to accomplish" your goal.

She also became a street protester, joining a demonstration in July 1958 objecting to the jail sentence that had just been given to Dr. Benjamin Spock for urging young American men to avoid the draft for the Vietnam War. When she went to the aid of a demonstrator who was under arrest, she was herself arrested, hauled off to the notorious Don Jail and charged with obstructing the police. Pierre Berton (obituary Dec. 1, 2004) testified on her behalf at her trial and she was acquitted, but the experience turned her into a social activist, albeit one who was always dressed to the nines complete with earrings, high-heeled shoes and matching handbag.

Over the next two decades she helped found Nellie's (1974) a shelter for abused women named after feminist Nellie McClung and Jessie's (1982) a home for teenagers and their babies. She also became deeply involved with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews, the Writers' Union, The Writers Trust and Pen Canada. Ms. Callwood brought enthusiasm, energy, contacts and persuasiveness to all of these activities. Sometimes though she became impatient with the politically correct tenor of the times. A start-up manager par excellence, she was probably not as temperamentally suited to the less tumultuous day-to-day maintenance role of keeping an organization on an even keel.

When poet M. Norbese Philips complained in 1989 that an international Pen Congress had put too much emphasis on white writers at the expense of writers of colour, she exploded with a crude expletive. "She was being obnoxious so I told her to fuck off," she recalled. "I thought she was a man, because she was all bundled up. I think I might have been hesitant to say to a woman to 'fuck off,' but even so I thought it might make me less of a racist not more [because she responded in the same way she would have treated a white person] Years later, when a Black female staff member complained at a Nellies board meeting that the white staff members were racist, Ms. Callwood challenged her remark. Tempers flashed, somebody called Ms. Callwood a racist and shaken, she left the meeting and eventually the organization. In the ensuing chaos, nobody took care of the paper work for Nellie's ongoing grant and eventually the government sent the forms to Ms. Callwood with a stern reminder that the grant would be cancelled if the forms weren't filed immediately. "To my eternal credit I decided I had to save Nellie's so I phoned them and said they had to come and pick up this paperwork, but there was a moment there...." she said in an interview six months before she died.

"I was in bad shape for a long time," she told The Globe in 2004. "It took me years to stop being angry, and I'm not over being hurt yet." She believed that flinging accusations of racism was a peculiar affliction of collegial women's organizations, where there was far too much tolerance by white middle class women, for disruptive, self-indulgent behaviour and declarations of "feeling your pain." Men's groups never went in for that kind of name-calling, she said, and women's groups don't either now because it "turned out to be bad strategy."

Diagnosed with C.U.P (cancer, unknown primary) in Sept. 2003, she had surgery, but declined aggressive treatment. Four years later, she agreed to take chemo pills and some radiation, but still declined more intrusive treatment. When writer Sylvia Fraser asked the author of Twelve Weeks in Spring (an inspirational memoir that Ms. Callwood wrote in 1986 about a care circle she formed to nurse a friend, Margaret Frazer, who was dying of cancer), whether she could foresee a time when she might like home palliative care, Ms. Callwood apparently made a "rude" noise and said: "Would you want your friends feeding you and emptying your bedpan?"

In fact, Ms. Callwood took a much different tack in the foreword to that book, which has turned into a "how to" primer for many care circles in the 20 years since it was first published. "... all of us, I think, had the hope that in experiencing Margaret's death at such close hand, we might be better prepared to face our own. When people explore what they dread, sometimes they become less afraid."

By then, she had faced the unthinkable, the death of one of her own children. Casey, the Frayne's unexpected fourth child, was born on Sept. 12, 1961. "He was a dandy," she told me with a quiver in her voice. "I used to say to him, if anything happens to you, I will never get over it." And she didn't. In April, 1982, Casey, then 20, was riding his motorcycle back to Queen's University in Kingston, Ont. when he was hit and killed by a driver going the wrong way on the 401. For the rest of her life Ms. Callwood often spoke aloud to her dead son, in the kitchen while making dinner or in her bedroom before going to sleep at night. When she verbalized her emptiness to Mr. Frayne, he would spin a fantasy life for their son, imagining what he might be doing, if he were still alive, and in that way he talked her through the tsunami of grief threatening to knock her over.

Out of Casey's death and the palliative care experience with Margaret Frazer, came the idea for establishing a residential hospice for people dying of AIDS. Ms. Callwood donated half the royalties from Twelve Days in Spring and Linda Rapson, the palliative care doctor who had attended Ms. Frazer, donated her medical fees to help found Casey House Hospice in 1988. Today it offers free services to more than 100 clients in the community and runs a 13 bed residential program in downtown Toronto.

In her 70s, with her children grown, Ms. Callwood took up gliding. For her 80th birthday in 2004, her family gave her a mahogany-coloured Mazda Miata, the latest in a string of mini convertibles that she drove in all weather with the top down, especially on annual sojourns to Florida. Although the cancer was progressing, she seemed serene as her life ebbed. She felt no fear about her impending death and said she had very few regrets. "I'm a very healthy woman except for a lot of cancer tumours. They aren't scaring me, although I wish I could breathe better because it is hard to go up stairs and I can't walk very far," she said in November 2006. She remained irredeemably cheerful, partly because every time she looked up her disease on Google, "I read my life expectancy and give myself a six month extension."

Four months after that interview, on March 21, she moved into the palliative care wing of Princess Margaret Hospital, where she said farewell to friends and family, nibbled on chocolate, sipped ice water and the occasional sherry, and exuded a calm acceptance - a model, as always, for those around her.

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About the Author
Feature writer

Sandra Martin is a Globe columnist and the author of the award-winning book, A Good Death: Making the Most of Our Final Choices. A long-time obituary writer for The Globe, she has written the obituaries of hundreds of significant Canadians, including Pierre Berton, Jackie Burroughs, Ed Mirvish, June Callwood, Arthur Erickson, and Ken Thomson. More

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