Actress, saleswoman, shipper, bookkeeper, enthusiast. Born Nov. 29, 1903, in London. Died Feb. 21, 2012, in Toronto of old age, at 108.
At Gladys O’Connor’s 100th birthday party, her “kid” sister, 94-year-old Sheila, gave her $100. Gladys’s arms shot up in the air: “Wow! Just wait till I’m 200!”
The morning after, Gladys fell in her apartment. When we found her, she looked up at us unfazed and said, “I love life, don’t you?” Incongruous, but true. Love it she did – and live it she did.
Gladys was a nine-year-old growing up in east-end London when her father, Dennis, booked passage on the Titanic for his four children and his pregnant wife, Louisa. But when it came time to pay for their tickets, he couldn’t afford it – an ironic benefit of being poor. They travelled on a cheaper ship instead, but the rough voyage took its toll. Shortly after they arrived in Hamilton, Gladys’s mother and her baby both died in childbirth and the motherless family began a life of labour.
Gladys started working at 14 – for $6 a week – with the Empire Wallpaper Co. in Toronto. She did every job in the store: selling wallpaper, bookkeeping, even wrapping the rolls for shipping. When Empire opened a new branch in Winnipeg, the general manager flew her out to train new staff because, he said, she knew more about the operation than the managers.
She retired from the store at 67, and a few years later began a new career as an actress. After being interviewed in 1977 for a show about the transformation of the Cabbagetown neighbourhood where she had lived for 32 years, she got an agent and started auditioning and being cast.
She kept her British accent, and her Cockney sense of fun. A petite woman, she traded quips with Paul Gross on Due South, served tea to Dame Wendy Hiller in an Anne of Green Gables movie and pulled out a shotgun to protect Jeff Daniels’ geese in the movie Fly Away Home. Acting gave her “thrills like an electric shock through my whole body. It’s a lot more fun than shipping!”
In interviews, Gladys usually asked as many questions as the interviewer. She was curious about everybody, high or low – brilliant minds or the racetrack touts at Woodbine where she’d bet on the races on Saturday afternoons.
Although she was engaged twice, each of the men died before the wedding, one of malaria contracted in Africa, the other in a motorcycle collision. She had no children of her own, but she made clothes for all the kids in her Cabbagetown apartment building, and every year carted piles of Christmas gifts on the bus to her nieces, nephews and their children in Michigan.
Gladys’s secret? An apple every morning and a brandy every night (“They say there’s a lot of medicinal value in brandy”), walking everywhere (she never owned a car), an eternal enthusiasm (her favourite expression was, “Isn’t that rich!”), never holding on to anger, and seeing the best in people of every age.
By Anne Tait, Gladys’s friend.
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