Accidental Activist

Discovering June Callwood

Most of the good deeds being done in the world today are small, and done in private.

By Ben Bull
Published April 30, 2007

When I was a student nurse back in Halifax, England, I spent four memorable weeks as a Surgeon's Assistant. I have many pleasant memories of this time. Wrapping up the poor old man's leg, after the Orthopedic surgeon has lopped it off during a double amputation. Emptying the bucket of foul smelling gook, the remnants of the day's prostate resections. It was a fine time.

Despite the goo and the gore, my overriding memory is the friendship I developed with my nurse colleague, Caroline. Caroline was a Nurse Orderly - or whatever they call the female equivalent of hospital dogsbody these days - and consequently, was routinely abused and belittled by the never-so-charming staff at the Royal Halifax Infirmary.

But she didn't care. She smiled through it all and she made me smile too. We laughed a lot. We laughed as I tried to draw a map of Italy along the old man's severed leg (well, it was no use to him, now was it?). We laughed again when Caroline filled me in on who was sleeping with whom, who said what to whom...

They were fun times, but in reality, Caroline had a hard life. As I got to know her over my short surgical stint, she confided in me about her Mum, sick with Cancer, and her Grandma, bed-ridden and completely dependent on her grand-daughter for the necessities of life.

Caroline looked after them both, and never complained. Every evening after work she would hurry on home and tend to her family. The next day she'd be smiling and laughing and doing her best to cheer me up as we braced ourselves for another session with 'the bucket' and whatever other morbid treats the Surgeon had in store for us that day.

It's not often you meet, or hear, of someone as selfless and worthy as Caroline, but I stumbled across another person of that calibre just the other day: June Callwood.

I'd never heard of June Callwood until her death hit the newsstands on April 14. As I saw the condolences and accolades come rolling over the presses in the days following her death, I think I came to know her pretty well.

One thing that stuck me about this woman, as I perused the Toronto Star's editorial and the Globe and Mail's obituary, was just how much she'd accomplished with her life, and the feisty attitude she'd adopted along the way.

"I have felt like an outsider all my life," she once said, echoing the thoughts of many of us who cultivate a social conscience and wonder why we bother.

Her humour too, shone through. "I'm a mess," she told the CBC's George Stromboulopoulos, referring to her rapidly advancing cancer in the last TV interview before her death. "I'm blowing up like a Goodyear blimp."

I get stuck sometimes, as I consider my own place in the world, my limited ability to get anything done, and I wonder what it is I should do to make a difference in the world. But it seems to me, as I read about June Callwood's astonishing list of life accomplishments, that she didn't do too much of that.

She didn't have the time.

"I'm a licensed pilot - I've flown an airplane. I swim in the ocean. I married the man I loved, (I have) four wonderful kids..." she told Stromboulopoulos, barely scraping the surface of her life's work. "I'm okay ... 82 years old ... Dust to dust is the way it ought to be."

The other thing that struck me about 'Aunty June' was how anonymous she was to me. Like I say, until she died, I'd never heard of her.

As I ploughed through this lady's never-ending resume I couldn't imagine how it was that she'd never caught my eye. Were her achievements not big enough for the world to care?

But then I thought of Caroline, and realized that most of the good deeds being done in the world today are small, and done in private - far away from the prying eyes of the press.

Mother Theresa once said, "In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love."

I guess that's the way it has to be.

Raise The Hammer remembers humanitarian and lifelong activist, June Callwood. She made a difference.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.

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By hero biographer (anonymous) | Posted May 01, 2007 at 09:20:13

Around the same time the media were covering this story, I found out about another local hero whose tale will probably never be told again.

It is a tale of an older lady who was awaiting her son and his family to come for easter where the whole family would spend a few days together in her one bedroom seniors apt. in downtown Hamilton.

She had come from Croatia when she was young, married, struggled raising 2 children, one with serious medical problems who eventually passed away.

She struggles to this day on a fixed income and very limited means.

But that did not stop her.

Her circumstance did not stop her from standing up to two youths as they were beating another.

She approached them in Downtown Hamilton at around midnight on a sunday night after going to the local store to pick up some last minute items.

The youths fled and she helped the boy who was bruised and beaten , his only possessions a bike and a bag. The boy was apparently walking home which was a foster care facility of some sort far in the east end.

After helping the boy find a temporary stoarge for his bike, this lady walked the boy to the bus to await transit (she was paying).

After an hour and no bus, police stopped and informed them the buses ended an hour prior before leaving the pair to the mercy of Hamilton streets.

Undaunted, the lady took the boy to her apartment, called a cab, assembled some of her last food and paid for the cab to drive him home.

This despite having nothing much herself and when she told me this story it had been around 4:30 pm and she had not eaten yet that day. but she gave from what she had, stood up to danger, all because of a strength of character rarely noticed in today's society.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted May 02, 2007 at 14:50:29

It's not surprising that you hadn't heard of her. She's kept a lower profile in her later years, but for those of us who grew up in the Toronto area in the 70's and 80's, she was anything but anonymous, she was an icon. As an activist and philanthropist, her profile was easily on a par with that of David Suzuki, for example. She will be sadly mourned and greatly missed by a generation, particularly by women. So nice to hear such kind words from someone who was not familiar with her.

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By Rusty (registered) - website | Posted May 03, 2007 at 11:37:31

Thanks for the comments. I suspected that June was a known quantity outside of my own Canadian experience...:) Still, had she been a politician, a Corporate Exec or a pop star with a resume like that she'd have been rich and probably awarded a lot more recognition... We seem to reward people for the wrong reasons...

Thanks for the portrait of one of the many 'silent heroes' hero biographer... The world is truly full of them.

Ben

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