Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Answer Lady Marg Meikle met her diagnosis head on

Marg Meikle

Lionel Trudel

At a time when few had even heard of the Internet, and long before Google, when Canadians had a question they wanted answered, thousands turned to CBC's renowned Answer Lady.

Once a week, on CBC's popular Gabereau radio show, Marg Meikle, a charming, endlessly curious broadcaster, captivated the program's large audience with her infectious embrace of wit and knowledge – the more arcane the better.

What is the function of the earlobe? How fast does Santa need to travel on Christmas Eve to deliver all those presents? How much does your head weigh? What is Spanish fly, anyway?

Story continues below advertisement

For a dozen years, until the show went off the air in 1997, The Answer Lady answered countless such queries sent in by listeners, punctuated by lively on-air banter with host Vicki Gabereau.

She became famous. A spin-off series of award-winning question-and-answer books ensued, translated into a dozen languages. The fun, fact-filled publications sold in the tens of thousands. Years later, they are still selling. Ms. Meikle, in fact, received a royalty cheque just two days before she died on Dec. 21 of complications from Parkinson's, ending her long, arduous battle against the debilitating disease. She was 57.

While her bravura stint as The Answer Lady, plus frequent columns in Canadian Living magazine, made her known across the country, Ms. Meikle's lasting legacy is likely to be her response to Parkinson's and her very public struggle to combat its symptoms, which gradually and cruelly robbed her of the very communication prowess that had defined her career.

Tragically, it also struck at the peak of personal happiness, married only three years and a mere 18 months after giving birth to her only child, a son, at the age of 41. Ms. Meikle initially shrugged off worrisome changes in her body as normal for a first-time mother in her 40s, until one day in June, 1999, after a visit to a neurologist, she phoned her husband, Noel MacDonald. "It's Parkinson's," she said.

Whether it was growing sweet peas, freelancing or confronting Parkinson's, Ms. Meikle was not one for half measures. Shunning self-pity, she faced her diagnosis head on, harnessing the same energy and quest for information that characterized her pre-Parkinson's life. "She did what she did with everything," says close friend and well-known broadcaster Bill Richardson. "She took it in a good, terrier-like grasp and researched the hell out of it."

What she found was not reassuring. Some days medication helped. Some days it didn't. Falls could happen without warning. Research was often contradictory, since symptoms among individuals varied widely. Yet Ms. Meikle did not sit back and sigh. "This thing has been very hard on our family, but we couldn't just wait around for a cure," she told Mr. Richardson. "We had to do something."

She and her husband soon launched a homespun fundraiser, Porridge for Parkinson's. "Marg loved the alliteration of it," Mr. MacDonald says. They invited people from Ms. Meikle's wide circle of friends into their home on the west side of Vancouver, cooked up huge pots of porridge and asked breakfasters, once they were full of oatmeal, to make a donation to Parkinson's research.

Story continues below advertisement

The first gathering, in 2001, raised $17,000, more than triple their modest target. The event took off. Donations increased every year, sparking similar Porridge for Parkinson's fundraisers across North America. All told, with the help of matching donations lined up by Ms. Meikle, the annual Vancouver porridge fest (dubbed "a bowl movement," by the couple) has raised more than $1.6-million. Proceeds go to the Pacific Parkinson's Research Centre at the University of B.C., which is now able to fund a full professorship.

'I think of her as a kaleidoscope'

In 2007, as her condition worsened, Ms. Meikle opted for deep-brain stimulation, a radical, invasive treatment that involved implanting electrodes within her brain as a way of controlling her tremors and improving her quality of life.

She knew it was not a cure. But with expectations of relief, she invited reporter Maurice Bridge into the operating room to give the public a glimpse into both her deterioration and her hopes, plus the gruelling procedure itself.

Mr. Bridge's gripping articles won him a 2007 Jack Webster Award, British Columbia's top journalism prize. The night of the awards, Ms. Meikle was at his table, greeting all comers with alacrity, despite her physical difficulties.

"Her willingness to put herself at the centre of an intensely personal story, with no strings attached, was truly admirable," Mr. Bridge recalls. "As they drilled through her skull to set the electrodes – she was wide awake and talking, because the surgeon had to ask her questions to get the placement correct – I remember thinking this was one of the most intimate moments I've shared with anyone in my life."

Story continues below advertisement

Sadly, the operation failed, and her steady decline continued. In time, Ms. Meikle lost her ability to speak, although never her drive to communicate. Two years ago, she delivered a strong speech to a stakeholders' forum on the need for advanced-care planning, her words pronounced by sophisticated computer software.

"She had a tough go of it, but she was anxious to let people know that this was not something to be hidden," says Dale Parker, chair of the institute that provides funding to the UBC research centre. Ms. Meikle felt she should talk about it, "and really get behind trying to find better treatments and ultimately a cure. Porridge for Parkinson's is still our most reliable source of money."

Yet there was much more to Ms. Meikle than her high-profile battle with Parkinson's. Even her Answer Lady reputation didn't hint at everything that went on in her life before she was stricken. She was a master knitter, an accomplished gardener, a force to be reckoned with in Scrabble, a freelancer who left associates in awe at her ability to coax stories from what often seemed the thinnest of gruel, and she was a superb academic researcher. She wrote her master's thesis on the history of Cowichan sweaters. It became her first published book and remains the definitive study of the iconic West Coast apparel.

Ms. Meikle embraced the computer age from the start. Friends remember her as the first person they knew to have a home computer, a Kaypro, and the first to submit a computer-generated thesis at the University of Washington. She was also quick to understand the potential of the Internet, writing an early online column for Canadian Living. "Marg was multifaceted. She packed more into her short life than anyone could imagine," says long-time friend Judy Oberlander. "As she moved through life, I think of her as a kaleidoscope, with little bits and pieces coming together to form sparkling patterns."

Margaret Adelaide Meikle was the eldest of four children, born in 1956 to Maureen and Jim Meikle, who prospered running a company that rebuilt engines and transmissions for the major auto makers.

Her enthusiasm for whatever she tackled was soon evident. She was a Gold Cord Girl Guide, a camper and then a counsellor at hardy Camp Nor'wester on the San Juan Islands – where she developed a deep interest in Northwest native art – and earned a master's degree in museum studies.

At some point, she discovered radio, enchanting listeners on her first CBC network show, Basic Black, with anthropological reports on such quirky events as the annual Belt Sander Drag Races in Point Roberts, Wash.

Then she hit the jackpot as The Answer Lady.

Despite professional success and an astonishing network of friends, however, Ms. Meikle found herself unmarried in her late 30s, a status she was anxious to change. Proactive as ever, she placed a personal ad in a local weekly, the Georgia Straight. Mr. MacDonald, a magazine writer and researcher, responded. The two hit it off immediately. He didn't even mind when Ms. Meikle, true to her calling, began doing radio items on their courtship. That, too, produced a book, Bumbering Around Vancouver. Drawn to each other by a shared commitment to living life at full bore, they married in 1995. Their son Mac arrived two years later.

After family, nothing meant more to Ms. Meikle than friends. She seemed to have hundreds. One likened her to a magnet for attracting people. These close relationships lasted throughout her tribulations. The day Ms. Meikle moved into residential care, a group of friends she had known for years gathered to mark the occasion. To dispel the gloom, they produced a bottle of tequila, limes and shot glasses. Though she could barely move, the patient was not forgotten. As her friends drank, they painted Ms. Meikle's lips with tequila. "Her eyes went wide," her husband remembers. "She was so happy they were there, that she could still share a jovial moment with them."

In 2012, Ms. Meikle received Vancouver's civic merit award and the Queen's Jubilee Medal, the latter pinned on her chest by her teenaged son, who has never known his mother without Parkinson's. After her death, the Pacific Parkinson's Research Institute announced that its recent endowment at UBC would henceforth be called the Marg Meikle Parkinson's Professorship.

Ms. Meikle is survived by her mother, Maureen; brothers, Alan and Bill; husband, Noel MacDonald; and son, Malcolm (Mac).

To submit an I Remember:

obit@globeandmail.com

Send us a memory of someone we have recently profiled on the Obituaries page. Please include I Remember in the subject field.

Report an error
Comments

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨