Egan: Toddy Kehoe is 100 years old — ahead, blessedly, by a century

Toddy Kehoe is 100 years old — living through all that dying, for a very, very long time.

Her parents are gone, of course, and her three brothers (one in infancy), and a daughter — her first-born — and her husband, Ray, “a beautiful man” who died of a heart attack in 1977, leaving her a widow with five children. Her lifelong friend Kay Marshall has passed. Her political pal Marion Dewar is gone, too. The entire litany is much longer.

Former city councillor Toddy Kehoe, seen here in a family photo with her husband Ray, has turned 100 years old this past October.

It’s Tuesday with Toddy, whose real name is Margaret, and whose real nickname as a child was “Totty,” but got mumbled up along the way. No real reason to be here, except to be in awe of someone older than the Peace Tower and, according to engineering reports, a good deal sturdier.

“Isn’t it crazy,” she says of her milestone, using one of her favourite words, as in “Am I crazy?”, “Isn’t the world crazy?” or “You know my kids are crazy.”

You want crazy? A woman who drove until age 97, lives alone at 100, barely takes a pill, remembers all the important stuff and, at the moment, is making coffee for us in the kitchen. She was born, impossibly, while the First World War was still on.

Former city councillor Toddy Kehoe has turned 100 years old. She was born, astonishingly, while the first world war was still being fought.

Toddy met Ray in 1939 at the legendary Standish Hall — he was a pal of Toddy’s older brother, Jack Leore, a onetime Ottawa Rough Rider (1935-38). Just as they were getting acquainted, Ray went off to war and didn’t come home until October 1945, nearly six whole years. They were married in 1946.

“l’ll tell you something about him,” said Toddy, sitting in a sunlit room, dressed entirely in grey but for the red shoes. “He never, ever, ever, sober or not, when to bed without getting down on his knees and saying his prayers before bed.

“One day I asked him why. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘I was saved and I have this wonderful life, a wife and children, and the guy beside me was killed. So I have lots to be thankful for.’”

Former city councillor Toddy Kehoe, seen here in a family photo with her grand daughters.

Old storytellers, and she is a great one, are like this. They polish their lines over time, until they are smooth with wisdom.

In 1947, their first child, Janie, was born with Down’s syndrome, a condition Toddy knew nothing about.

“There was still the stigma of shame. It made you feel awful and you really didn’t know what to do.”

When it was time for Janie to go to school, there was really nowhere to send her. Thus began, in a way, Toddy’s political awakening: a graduate of the University of Ottawa in 1940, a woman in a man’s world, she decided to make some waves. She travelled to Toronto to advocate for per diems for students in a school for disabled children.

This was not long from an era when Orillia had an institution for the mentally disabled that was called, literally, “an asylum for idiots.” At Queen’s Park, she remembers meeting three or four “old fogeys” around a table.

“I looked at them and thought, ‘What the hell do you know about what I want to do?’”

Somehow, it worked. She looped in a service club, joined with like-minded women and Brighthope School opened on Kent Street with about eight kids that first year. Janie had somewhere to go. In 1962, Brighthope moved to a permanent home on Rosenthal Avenue in Carlington.

Toddy Kehoe’s first child, Janey, was born with Down Syndrome.

In 1974, she decided to run for city council. She had a budget of $500, a sign-making crew at Laurentian High School, and a family that was, initially, dubious about her ambitions. She went ahead anyway. Ray died during her first term in Carleton Ward.

Her time at city hall was marked by social activism. There was Dewar, and Rolf Hasenack — a Dominican priest — and Toddy, a faithful Catholic, a councillor dubbed “philosopher king,” another a rumoured draft dodger. One of their most memorable projects was not roads and sewers but hearts and minds: Project 4000 that brought so-called “boat people” from war-torn Vietnam to settle in the city.

“We were imbued with the idea that much has been given and much is expected of you,” she said, paraphrasing scripture.

(It was a bit of a golden age municipally, when you think of it: Graham Bird, Jim Durrell, Marlene Catterall, Don Reid, Andy Haydon and many others who went on to leave a major footprint on the city.)

Ottawa-1985- Mayor Marion Dewar- centre, with Toddy Kehoe-left- and Howard Smith-right.

We’ve gone, she remarked, from George Bush Sr.’s dream of a “kinder, gentler” society — given life on his death — to the era of Doug Ford and Donald Trump, whom she will never forgive for making fun of a disabled person while inviting others to laugh with him.

“There’s something wrong with the whole world.”

Her political philosophy was “to do good” without being “Miss Goodie Two-Shoes.” Indeed, while she was sometimes called “grandmotherly” on city council, she wasn’t afraid to dismiss council gadflys as “kooks,” take on bishops and businessmen and take the mickey out of fellow councillors, while admitting to crying the day Terry Fox quit his run. (She spearheaded a statue campaign.)

She’s down on the Catholic Church at the moment and isn’t afraid to call out what she sees as blatant hypocrisy and hyper-secrecy in dealing with generations-old sex scandals with clerics.

“The Pope says we’re going to pray about it. Pray about it? Why don’t we put them in jail?”

Throughout her life, she and the family spent summers at Tenaga, on the Gatineau River, while she wintered in Barbados for 40 years, until she was 99.

“I think that was good for me. We used to go into the sea three times a day.”

One of the secrets of aging well, she thinks, is having a circle of good friends, a supportive family (especially daughter Nancy), a sense of humour and a good attitude.

“I feel totally blessed because I’ve had such a good life. I have had a blessed life,” says Toddy Kehoe.

“I feel totally blessed because I’ve had such a good life. I have had a blessed life. It hasn’t all been easy. I’ve always kinda felt I was lucky.”

But didn’t she make her own luck, a hundred times over.

To contact Kelly Egan, please call 613-726-5896 or email kegan@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/kellyegancolumn


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