Ex-councillor had a busy century
Toddy Kehoe is 100 years old, living through all that dying for a very, very long time.
Her parents are gone, of course, and her three brothers (one in infancy), and a daughter — her first-born — and her husband Ray, who she remembers as “a beautiful man” who died of a heart attack in 1977, leaving her a widow with five children.
Her lifelong friend Kay Marshall has passed. Her political pal Marion Dewar is gone, too. The entire litany is much longer.
It’s Tuesday with Toddy. Her first name is Margaret, and her nickname as a child was Totty, but it got mumbled up along the way. No real reason to be here, except to be in awe of someone older than the Peace Tower and, according to engineering reports, a good deal sturdier.
“Isn’t it crazy,” she says of her milestone, using one of her favourite words, as in “Am I crazy?” “Isn’t the world crazy?” or “You know, my kids are crazy.”
You want crazy? This woman drove until age 97, lives alone at 100, barely takes a pill, remembers all the important stuff and, at the moment, is making coffee for us in the kitchen. She was born, impossibly, while the First World War was still on.
Toddy met Ray in 1939 at the legendary Standish Hall — he was a pal of Toddy’s older brother Jack Leore, a one-time Ottawa Rough Rider (1935-38). Just as they were getting acquainted, Ray went off to war and didn’t come home until October 1945, nearly six whole years. They were married in 1946.
“l’ll tell you something about him,” Toddy says, sitting in a sunlit room, dressed entirely in grey but for the red shoes. “He never, ever, ever, sober or not, went to bed without getting down on his knees and saying his prayers before bed.
“One day I asked him why. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘I was saved and I have this wonderful life, a wife and children, and the guy beside me was killed. So I have lots to be thankful for.’”
Old storytellers, and she is a great one, are like this. They polish their lines over time until they are smooth with wisdom.
In 1947, their first child, Janie, was born with Down syndrome, a condition Toddy knew nothing about.
“There was still the stigma of shame,” she says. “It made you feel awful and you really didn’t know what to do.”
When it was time for Janie to go to school, there was really nowhere to send her. Thus began, in a way, Toddy’s political awakening: a graduate of the University of Ottawa in 1940, a woman in a man’s world, she decided to make some waves. She travelled to Toronto to advocate for per diems for students in a school for disabled children.
This was not long from an era when Orillia had an institution for the mentally disabled that was called an asylum for idiots. At Queen’s Park, she remembers, she met three or four “old fogeys” around a table.
“I looked at them,” she says, “and thought, ‘What the hell do you know about what I want to do?’”
Somehow, it worked. She looped in a service club, joined with like-minded women and Brighthope School opened on Kent St. with a handful of students that first year. Janie had somewhere to go.
In 1962, Brighthope moved to a permanent home on Rosenthal Ave. in Carlington.
In 1974, she decided to run for city council. She had a budget of $500, a sign-making crew at Laurentian High School, and a family that was, initially, dubious about her ambitions.
She went ahead anyway. Ray died during her first term in Carleton ward.
Her time at city hall was marked by social activism. There was Dewar, Dominican priest Rolf Hasenack and faithful Catholic Toddy, a councillor dubbed philosopher king, another a rumoured draft dodger. One of their most memorable projects was not roads and sewers but hearts and minds: Project 4000 brought so-called boat people from war-torn Vietnam to settle in the city.
“We were imbued with the idea that much has been given and much is expected of you,” she says, paraphrasing scripture.
(It was a bit of a golden-age municipally, when you think of it: Graham Bird, Jim Durrell, Marlene Catterall, Don Reid, Andy Haydon and many others went on to leave a major footprint on the city.)
We’ve gone, she remarks, from George Bush Sr.’s dream of a “kinder, gentler” society — given life on his death — to the era of Doug Ford and Donald Trump, whom she says she will never forgive for making fun of a disabled person while inviting others to laugh with him.
“There’s something wrong with the whole world,” she says.
Her political philosophy was “to do good” without being “Miss Goody TwoShoes.” Indeed, while she was sometimes called “grandmotherly” on city council, she wasn’t afraid to dismiss council gadflys as kooks, take on bishops and businessmen, while admitting to crying the day Terry Fox quit his run. (She spearheaded a statue campaign.)
She’s down on the Catholic Church at the moment and isn’t afraid to call out what she sees as blatant hypocrisy and hyper-secrecy in dealing with generations-old sex scandals with clerics.
“The Pope says we’re going to pray about it,” she says. “Pray about it? Why don’t we put them in jail?”
Throughout her life, she and the family spent summers at Tenaga, on the Gatineau River, while she wintered in Barbados for 40 years, until she was 99.
“I think that was good for me,” she says. “We used to go into the sea three times a day.”
One of the secrets of aging well, she says, is having a circle of good friends, a supportive family (especially daughter Nancy), a sense of humour and a good attitude.
“I feel totally blessed,” she says, “because I’ve had such a good life. I have had a blessed life. It hasn’t all been easy. I’ve always kinda felt I was lucky.”
But didn’t she make her own luck a hundred times over?
Former city councillor Toddy Kehoe, who turned 100 in October, shows off an album full of family photos.