A Storied Life

By Peter McKinnon

Lyn Waddell inspired generations of young readers with her historical novels, radio plays and volunteerism. In a final act of kindness, she made generous donations in her will to a series of charities, including the Perley Health Foundation.

Born Evelyn Margaret Cook in 1918 in suburban Toronto, Lyn completed degrees in English and Library Science during the first years of the Second World War. While at the University of Toronto, she acted in a number of school plays with Mavor Moore, a friend who went on to become a noted pioneer of Canadian stage and television. Upon graduation, Lyn worked briefly as a librarian before enlisting in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), Women’s Division.

Lyn Cook served as a meteorological observer at aviation-training bases in Centralia (outside London, Ontario) and in Trenton. The Allies recognized that training hundreds of thousands of pilots, navigators and support staff would be essential to wrest control of the skies from Nazi Germany. In December 1939, the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan came into being and CFB Trenton soon became the world’s largest aviation-training centre.

During overnight shifts in an observation tower, Lyn Cook began to write poetry, and published her first piece, Candles, in the Canadian Poetry magazine under the pseudonym Margaret Culverhouse (a combination of her middle name and her maternal grandmother’s maiden name). By the end of the 1940s, she had self-published three collections of her poems.

While at CFB Trenton, she met her future husband: RCAF aircraft mechanic Robb Waddell. Immediately after the war, Lyn accepted a job as children’s librarian in Sudbury and continued to write in her spare time. Her first radio play, A Doorway to Fairyland, drew the attention of executives with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, who convinced her to move to Toronto. For the next four years, Lyn researched, wrote, narrated and directed a popular weekly radio show for children.

The move also reunited her with Robb and the two married in 1949. They bought two acres of land in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, where they settled down to raise a family. Robb started a career in the automotive industry, while Lyn published The Bells on Finland Street, the first in a series of 23 novels for teens and pre-teens written under her maiden name. Their first child, son Chris, arrived in 1952; daughter Deborah followed a year later.

To ensure Lyn had time to write, the family would hire a housekeeper for a few weeks at time. “Mom would go down to her office in the basement, and my sister and I knew not to disturb her,” recalls son Chris, an award-winning journalist and university professor. Along with historical novels, Lyn wrote screenplays, picture books and The Brownie Handbook; she also taught drama and regularly read to children at schools and libraries. In 1978, the Canadian Authors’ Association awarded her the Vicky Metcalf Award for Literature for Young People. The Toronto Public Library graciously retains her papers in the Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books.

Lyn remained in the family home after Robb died in 1988, but eventually moved to be closer to her daughter Deborah, who had a home in Westport, southwest of Ottawa. In 2016, Lyn broke a hip and rehabilitated for a short time at Perley Health. Two years later, her health declined further and she moved into  Perley Health full-time. Lyn celebrated her 100th birthday there in 2018 and passed away a few weeks later.

“Although she only spent a few months there,” says son Chris, “she was impressed by the quality of care she received and enjoyed living alongside other Veterans in an environment with a strong connection to military service. I think that’s why she chose to include the Foundation in her will.”

As with her written works, the gift-in-will helps to ensure that Lyn Waddell’s generous, optimistic spirit lives on.