Last fall, I was walking a Caribbean beach with a group of business people. We were on a Small Business Cruise and had the day to roam sandy beaches together. Terry Coles, one of the cruise organizers, turned to me on the beach and said: “If you could be walking here with any famous person, who would it be?”
I didn’t hesitate. “June Callwood.”
And thus began the shared story of a journalist, wife, parent, and social activist. This world is so much better for June’s approach to it. So, so, so much better.
As journalists, we get paid to dip in and out of lives. We listen and then we tell people’s stories. Sometimes those stories result in change, but only if somebody else picks up the gauntlet and makes a difference. Most of our journalism professors and all of our editors tell us to remain objective, uninvolved, so our articles are not comprised by subjectivity.
June Callwood broke that rule. And every time she broke the rule, she bettered the world.
I first met June Callwood in the late 1980’s. The teen magazine that I was editor of offered an annual Writing Contest. We were able to raise terrific prizes–computers etc–and we wanted high profile judges with an empathy for youth. I well remember trying to find June Callwood. It wasn’t that hard, really. She was listed under Frayne, Trent in the Toronto phone book. I called; she accepted. She joined news anchor Knowlton Nash and children’s author Tim Wynne-Jones as our judging team that year.
She was moved by the sincerity of the entries. She took thoughtful time with reading, scoring, and commenting on each piece. But what I most appreciated was her ability to appreciate the depth of what she was reading. She commented later that the world was in good hands.
I next met June when she spoke at Georgian College. An early fundraiser for Hospice Simcoe, June chose to talk about her 1986 book, Twelve Weeks in Spring: the Inspiring Story of Margaret and her Team. I will forever hear her voice and take with me the lesson she shared.
She had joined a team of women to care for a friend who was dying of pancreatic cancer. While these women each shared a specific connection to Margaret Frazer, the heroine of the narrative, they seldom saw each other. Through Dr. Linda Rapson the team organized and monitored itself to maximize Margaret’s quality of life and allow her to live out her life at home.
I remember June sharing her hustle and bustle as she took on her shift of time. She’d straighten bedding, tidy books, put tea on to steep. Her friend, a fellow feminist and social activist, spoke gently to her, patting the side of the bed and asking her to sit.
For the rest of my days I will hear June’s soft, clear voice as she shared Margaret’s gentle request that June just sit, just be, just be with her friend. Just be quiet. Just be there.
Like her other 29 books, June’s Twelve Weeks in Spring had a purpose and that purpose was to document excellent palliative care and what it could mean to the dying person. It has become a backbone of hospice care across this country.
Everything that June Callwood did had a purpose. And that purpose was never to attract attention to herself. She suffered horrific personal losses; she built a life based on a childhood of want. She wrote about issues like teen pregnancy, AIDS, homelessness and then she set about to do something about the issue.
She’s been awarded just about every honour a Canadian could receive… Order of Canada, honorary university degrees, letters, awards, scholarships, on and on. She chronicled the lives of Canadian women we would not have known.
She excelled at every medium… newspaper articles, magazine journalism, radio and television interview shows, and books. She tackled topics long before they were mainstream; in fact, she made us confront our very weaknesses; and she made it possible for human kind to be better. She cared passionately about people and she focussed on those who were ignored by others.
She and her sports writer husband, Trent Frayne, experienced the incredible grief of the loss of a child. They helped two other children live with debilitating illness. They battled emotional illness and addiction. She used her loss to create a gift of good for AIDS victims who were treated like pariahs in the early 80’s. She used her pen to create Jessie’s (a centre for teen parents), Nellie’s (a home for homeless women), Casey’s (an AIDS hospice), Digger House (a home for homeless teens). On and on and on… she supported writers, she worked tirelessly for Canadian Civil Liberties. She also took time to challenge herself and earn her pilot’s licence.
She wrote the autobiographies (as a ghost writer) for famous, famous people.
In 2004 when June herself received the medical report that identified cancer, she chose to live out her life without medical intervention. She became a member of the June Callwood team of friends. She narrowed down her time to filter it in her most positive way. Her husband of 60 years received a similar diagnosis the same year.
On Saturday, while the goodness she created continued to bless its communities, June nurtured silence. She had learned well from Margaret, her friend, in her time of dying. Just be. Just be right here. Until I go.
It’s totally expected that June Callwood would want no memorial service, no celebration of life. In all the articles, all the books, all the shows, all the interviews, focussing on herself just wasn’t something she did.
But as I write this, Toronto streets are quiet with the silent walking from Jessie’s at Parliament & Dundas to Casey House on Huntley Street. A few blocks. A few hundred people walking to honour and remember. Walking quietly. Just to be.
Good-bye, June Callwood. You are now solo. Fly well!