For decades, Margaret Kearney was the voice of Newfoundland and Labrador for the rest of Canada through her weekly segments on CBC Radio with Peter Gzowski, first on This Country in the Morning, from 1971 to 1975, and later on Morningside, from 1976 to 1997. She was so popular that a segment she once did on Christmas punch prompted 3,500 listeners to write in requesting the recipe; after another, concerning “the change of life,” a woman in Calgary wrote that she had found the program so engrossing that she drove too fast and got a $25 speeding ticket. The vibrant, ever-curious, multi-faceted and pioneering broadcaster and newspaper journalist died Dec. 9 in St. John’s. She was 94.
Born Margaret Maureen Armstrong on Feb. 6, 1925, she was the second child and first baby girl born at St. Clare’s hospital in St. John’s. Her father, Frank Armstrong, worked for the Commercial Cable Company. Her mother, the former Rita Ryan, was secretary to Robert. J. Murphy, general manager of the Avalon Telephone Company and founder of the commercial radio station VONF. Ms. Kearney was the third oldest of six children, with three sisters and two brothers who remained tight-knit all their lives. Central St. John’s formed the geographical and social borders of her young life, boundaries she would greatly expand.
She graduated from Mercy Convent, then took a commercial course and was hired by the U.S. Navy at the Argentia Base in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, before joining the Woman’s Royal Canadian Naval Services of the Royal Canadian Navy in 1944. “The nuns were horrified when she joined the Navy,” said her daughter, Anna Kearney Guigné. Stationed at Cornwallis, N.S., and Ottawa, she did secretarial work and also entertained the troops, performing in musicals; she had a gorgeous voice.
Demobbed, she returned to St. John’s with her world view greatly expanded and was soon employed with the Newfoundland Tourist Development Office. “My sister Mary was leaving to get married and I went to work in her place,” she told The Evening Telegram in a profile written when she was 67. One task was making carbon copies of travel articles published about Newfoundland, then primarily devoted to fish and wildlife. Joseph R. Smallwood, then a private citizen known primarily through his Broadcasting Corporation of Newfoundland program The Barrelman, stopped by frequently to “read anything about Newfoundland.”
Then she met Gerry Kearney, who had spent five years in the seminary before deciding he didn’t want to be a priest; his sister introduced them and they were quickly engaged, marrying Sept. 21, 1948. They moved to Gander, where he worked with Allied Aviation. They lived there for 11 years and three of their four children were born there. Gander was then a glamorous aviation hub, and she saw people like Aristotle Onassis and Burl Ives – and all the latest fashions. But as global flight patterns shifted, aviation employees were encouraged to take aptitude tests directing them toward new careers and Mr. Kearney, a tinkerer, was evaluated as mechanically inclined. A local watchmaker encouraged him to study horology.
In 1959 the Kearneys packed up a small Volkswagen and drove to Lancaster, Pa., where Mr. Kearney attended Bowman’s Institute. It was a long drive through hot summer days. “I clearly remember we had never allowed the children to have comic books, but the children started getting fractious and finally I bought 30 comic books – 10 to each of them – and said ‘share,’” she told The Telegram. “The comics were the best money I ever spent.”
During their time in the United States, Ms. Guigné remembers seeing U.S. President John F. Kennedy in a parade, and that they purchased their first colour TV. On that, Ms. Kearney watched shows like NBC’s Tonight Starring Jack Paar, observing and absorbing their interview techniques.
In 1962, and now with a fourth child, Louise, they returned to St. John’s. Mr. Kearney first worked from a desk in their bedroom (she took the children on expeditions after school to give him as much quiet as possible). He later founded Kearney’s Watch Repair in the Avalon Mall, which still operates today.
Ms. Kearney went back to work at a law firm, but then, when a female acquaintance who freelanced with CBC Radio couldn’t do it any more, she stepped in. Over the years, she covered the opening of the Come-by-Chance Oil Refinery, interviewed Selma Barkham (the historian and geographer who discovered the Basque whaling site in Red Bay, Labrador), did a documentary on the legendary Captain Bob Bartlett, and co-ordinated Mr. Gzowski’s working visits to the province.
But not everything went smoothly. Once, during a live interview about icebergs with Professor Colin Langford, of Memorial University of Newfoundland, she asked him how old icebergs were, and was flummoxed when he answered 5,000 years (she was expecting him to say hundreds). “My mind went blank and the dead air seconds piled up.” On another occasion, also live, a CN striker told her where to go. But she always quickly recovered her footing.
Other gigs included co-hosting The Bob MacLean Show (1975 to 1981), a TV talk show shot at Toronto’s Cumberland Terrace (generally she disliked the intense pressure of television); developing the VOCM Sunday morning children’s program Nan-Nan Mags (featuring the Beaver Woods stories, which her husband had made up as bedtime stories for their children); and Radio 65, a four-part senior-oriented series broadcast live on CBC in the 1980s.
In her 80s she was featured on Here and Now, CBC Television’s evening news program in Newfoundland and Labrador, as a commentator in segments titled From Marg’s Corner.
She also wrote for The Daily News, The Evening Telegram, and Decks Awash.
In addition to her journalism work, Ms. Kearney had an impressive career with the provincial civil service. In the early 1970s, working with Newfoundland and Labrador’s Department of Consumer Affairs, she initiated Box 999, a consumer advocacy column.
As a promoter for the province’s (variously titled) Departments of Tourism, Culture, and Recreation from 1978 to 1992, she pursued such initiatives as presenting slide shows in New York to “encourage those hard-nosed press men” to send travel writers and photographers to the province, and bringing what started as 50 sometimes idiosyncratically-run bed-and-breakfasts up to professional industry standards. “Because I’d worked with tourism before the war I felt like I was going a full circle. Going to work was always fun.”
She received the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador in 2014.
Assertive, outspoken, friendly, “she was game for anything,” her daughter said. She was a photographer and quiltmaker, a devout Catholic and regular reader at her parish church St. Pius X; she never forgot a name, was gracious to the end of her life, and was on all levels a storyteller. No mistake that that St. John’s Telegram profile was subtitled “No Stopping Her.” In that profile Ms. Kearney said that in order to accomplish all she wanted to do she needed to live to 150.
Predeceased by her husband Gerard (1997), daughter Louise (2000), and all her siblings, she leaves a daughter, Anna, and sons, Francis and Christopher.