About five years ago, author Randy Klaassen wrote a book about the life of Blanche Quinn. After an extensive amount of time interviewing her, he described her as a woman who lived life “at full throttle.”
That was Blanche. She was spirited, strong-minded and opinionated. She said what she thought. She was genuine, intelligent, quick with a one-liner, always upbeat and ready with a smile.
When talking to others who knew her, there is a theme that quickly becomes evident. She had a difficult life, and many hardships to tackle, mostly by herself. She never hesitated to talk about them, or about the losses of those she loved. She met challenges head-on, with strength, and most of all, with humour, her way of coping with adversity. The woman who may be remembered most for her wit loved to make others smile.
Klaassen says Blanche, who died May 8 at the age of 97, was 90 years old when she finally gained full independence and moved into an apartment on her own. Prior to that she had always lived with someone else.
She was raised in Toronto by her grandmother after the death of her parents, and then, when her grandmother died, lived with a friend and her family. She joined the Royal Canadian Air Force with a friend, and after the war, married Lincoln Quinn, and came to Niagara-on-the-Lake to live with his parents in the family home on Ricardo Street.
Her husband died when their kids were young, and she raised four children with the help of her in-laws. She lost her son Jim to suicide, and in one decade, Klaassen wrote, she lost six people who were dear to her.
To support her family, she worked at the Niagara District Airport. In 2017, her career there was documented on film by local Barbara Tranter, who knew Blanche as a friend of her parents when the kids were growing up.
Tranter left Niagara in the 1970s, following a career as a film-maker, and since her return to her hometown in 2011, has been interviewing and making short videos of people of her parents’ generation, who had stories to tell about Niagara-on-the-Lake in the years following the Second World War.
When she ran into Blanche at the Legion, Tranter says she quickly realized she was talking to a woman who had stories to tell, and she wanted to record them.
The five-minute video she produced about Blanche was made at the airport, where she had worked from 1960 to 1988, bringing no training to the job other than her war years’ experience. She became airport manager, although she didn’t have a flying licence, a radio licence, or any training in air traffic control, which eventually became her responsibility. She also used to give weather forecasts to pilots — in Tranter’s video, she talks about judging visibility by how well she could see the crane at Port Weller, and wind velocity by how straight the flag was flying.
“She was someone who had led a difficult life, yet she would go on to do really hard things,” says Tranter. “She was very resourceful. She had to be.”
After her kids were grown and John and Judy gone from the Ricardo Street home, Blanche continued to live there with her son Patrick, his wife Paula and their kids, until eventually it became too small. It also had no parking. When Pat and his family moved to a large house on Irvine Road, she went with them.
“Sometime later she moved to an apartment at Pleasant Manor, then to full care at Heritage Place,” says Klaassen. “I visited her last at the end of February. She seemed tired, yet still had a spark in her spirit — that of quick wit and humour about life.”
Klaassen says when he was interviewing her for the book, which he wrote in her words, she often told stories that had him “wide-eyed” with disbelief, about how daring she was with adventures or situations.
“She also shared stories about other people from town, when I had to look her in the eye, and say, ‘Blanche, we can’t write that.’ ‘Why not?’ she demanded. ‘Blanche, I’d get sued if I published that story.’ She didn’t understand what the fuss was about, but we left those stories alone.”
When she talked about her years as a widow raising young children, Klaassen says, Blanche showed “an unfailing spirit to make the best of life. She often plowed her opinionated way through situations, sometimes leaving behind a few casualties, but determined to do her best. Blanche was charming and witty. She could be blunt with her opinions, but if you listened long enough, and didn’t let her opinions push you away, she could be a lot of fun.”
In the forward of the book, which is called I Did It My Way: That’s Why Nothing Works, Klaassen noted Blanche’s observation about life: “They ought to have an orientation session for this before somebody has to do it.’ Blanche found there are few orientation sessions for life’s challenges and responsibilities that confront each of us.” That’s true of many of the obstacles Blanche faced, and “kind of sums up our experience with the current pandemic,” he says.
After retiring from the airport, she took up letter writing, to the old Niagara Advance, except for a short sabbatical when she ran for politics and became an alderman, and vowed to give up letters that were critical of local politicians — it wasn’t an easy job, she realized. That lasted only as long as her one term — she chose not to run for a second three years, and once off council, took up her letter-writing again, until the Advance closed in 2017.
They were hand-written, dropped off at the office, and when she came in the door, it was always a treat to chat with Blanche and see what she’d written — astute commentaries, but never mean-spirited. She loved the town, and used humour, with a touch of sarcasm, to make her point. In her obituary, her family wrote: “What she was most known for was her tongue-in-cheek letters to the editor of the local newspaper. These letters made her a beloved town celebrity.”
She was on council from 1988 to 1991, when Stan Ignatczyk was lord mayor.
Also on council that term was Nellie Keeler, another strong-minded politician who said what she thought. She says she was disappointed when Blanche decided not to seek a second term — she brought knowledge, common sense and a good understanding of the town to the council table.
“She certainly had opinions,” says Keeler, “but she was very fair and reasonable. She was an easy person to work with. Although she had strong opinions, she was willing to listen to others.”
Blanche “always had an upbeat personality, even though she had so many struggles in life. She was always cheerful, and very knowledgeable,” says Keeler.
“When she talked, it was genuine. She never seemed down. It’s wonderful to think about that, now she’s gone. I always think of her smiling, making a joke. She was good at it. She would have been a force to deal with in her younger years,” says Keeler. “She would have to be tough, with what she went through in life.”
Keeler adds, “Blanche loved NOTL, 100 per cent, and her decisions on council were always made with insight. She could see the big picture, and she didn’t mind stepping up to the plate if things got tough. I had a lot of admiration for Blanche.”
Donald Combe, long-time member of St. Mark’s Anglican Church, also had huge admiration for Blanche.
She was a positive force who was never hesitant to speak her mind, he says. “She had a difficult life, but always rose above adversity, no matter how insurmountable. It was refreshing to be in her company, as you knew it would be both informative and fun. I never heard an ill word spoken about Blanche, as she was universally admired.”
Blanche was a life-long member and a warden at St. Mark’s. “She was high profile, and I just admired her candour and her genuine sense of fun,” says Combe.
“Blanche,” says Tranter, “was a role model. She thought outside the box. She was really creative, in terms of problem-solving.”
She was probably given the job of flight desk at the airport because of its secretarial nature, at a time when the airport was mainly a man’s world.
But that was before the days of discussions about feminism, says Tranter.
“It was a different generation. I would call her an early feminist, undisclosed. And she was a delight. I’ve done a lot of interviews, and Blanche was just a pure delight.”
Copies of Blanche’s story, I Did It My Way: That’s Why Nothing Works, are available from People’s History Publications.
She is survived by her children John, Judy, and Patrick, his wife Paula, grandchildren Jordon, Morgan, Kevin, Samantha, Bailey and Hunter, and eight great-grandchildren.
A celebration of life will be held at a later date, with memorial donations asked to be directed to the Lincoln County Humane Society.