TORONTO -- In the mid-1980s, when I hosted Dayshift, CBC Radio One's national afternoon show, Francess Halpenny was one of our regular contributors. She was not entirely "regular," however, because within the eclectic mix of that program, Francess's contributions of biographies of characters from Canada's past stood out from the usual magazine-format stalwarts such as house doctor, resident dentist, critics and political commentators, interspersed with pop tunes and sports reports.
Francess was co-editor of the august Dictionary of Canadian Biography and a doughty woman in her 60s, who came into the studio to work with a group of callow radio producers and on-air staff mostly in our 20s and 30s, and not nearly as aware of Canadian history as we should have been.
But Francess was unfazed by our ignorance and utterly gracious in her efforts to enlighten us during the segments, which we recorded once a month or so, in small batches. If she ever felt any incongruity in being a scholarly guest among authors of how-to books, pet ferrets and their human proponents, scruffy blues musicians, anti-poverty activists and professional baseball players, it never showed.
In fact, Francess loved being on radio. For all her academic achievements, she was also a keen student of theatre and a talented performer. Happily, however, her on-air presentation of Canadian lives was neither drily bookish nor overly dramatic. She was direct, matter-of-fact and had a wonderful sense of narrative build. More than anything, she communicated enormous affection for the people whose biographies she brought to light and open-hearted pleasure in sharing them.
I hope Francess gets her own write-up in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography that is as vivid and caring as what she researched and wrote about so many others.
ERIKA RITTER, TORONTO