Teacher, mother, storyteller, music maker. Born on Nov. 8, 1918, in Toronto; died on Feb. 20, 2014, in Toronto, of natural causes, aged 95.
Dorothy Sheahan was born in the final days of the First World War. The first seven years of her life were a battle against a host of diseases, including Spanish flu, scarlet fever, diphtheria, rheumatic fever and whooping cough. Although these left her partially blind in one eye, in a family where three of her five siblings died before their second birthday, she considered herself lucky to have survived.
A great storyteller, Dorothy had vivid memories of her childhood in Toronto. She recalled riding on the old “straw seater” streetcars, with seats that swivelled to face the opposite direction for the return trip. She remembered her father carrying her down a series of ladders to the bottom of the huge open-pit foundation of the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant (made famous in Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion) just a few weeks before a cave-in on the site killed four workers. She told of sitting on her front porch each evening during the deadly heat wave of 1936, watching hordes of Torontonians carry their bedding to the beaches and the promise of a cool breeze off Lake Ontario.
At 19, Dorothy became a teacher, earning $50 a month at St. Joseph’s Elementary, her childhood school. Her classroom, combined for Grades 2 and 3, had 48 desks; when 51 pupils turned up, the janitor simply shoe-horned in more desks. Her students remembered her as a teacher of great enthusiasm, patience and commitment. A group of five from that first class attended her wake. Well into their 80s, they recalled the fierce competition to hold their favourite teacher’s hand as they walked her home from school.
Dorothy’s family spent their summers on the Toronto Islands and it was at a dance at the clubhouse on Ward’s Island that she fell in love with Frank Redican. They soon became engaged but because Frank was eight years younger, she broke it off. However Frank was persistent. When he discovered Dorothy at a kissing booth at a church fair (nickel a kiss) he bought $5 worth of tickets and just like that the wedding was on again.
When they married in December, 1950, Dorothy had to leave her job because, at the time, married women weren’t allowed to teach. Years later, the rules changed and she returned to teaching part-time while raising her growing family.
Dorothy grew up surrounded by music (her father was a well-known Toronto song-and-dance man) and she and her sister had their own act. Her stage career ended abruptly at age 11, when her mother decreed that Dorothy’s “legs had grown too long and it wasn’t ladylike.”
She went on to become an organist, music teacher and choir conductor, first in her home parish of St. Joseph’s and later at Our Lady of Peace in Etobicoke, Ont. She also taught piano to all her children, five boys and three girls. There was always someone in the front room practising, our sharp-eared mother calling out corrections from the kitchen.
But singing was her passion. Any occasion – birthdays, Christmas, St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween – featured Dorothy at the piano leading everyone in song. Even at the end of her life, when dementia had taken almost all her memories, she could still sing along with Bye Bye Blackbird or Christmas in Killarney.
Dorothy leaves 10 grandchildren, eight children, and a host of former students and friends whose lives she touched with her music, her stories and her boundless energy.
Michael Redican is Dorothy’s third son.