Tori SuttonSTAFF REPORTERSouth Easthope Township native James Crerar Reaney, 81, died June 11 at Marian Villa in London after a lengthy illness.A memorial service was held at Robinson Memorial United Church in London on Saturday to celebrate the life of the playwright, poet, professor, artist, historian and opera librettist.Reaney was born on his family's farm, just outside Stratford, on Sept. 1, 1926. He won his first of three Governor General's Awards for Literary Merit in 1949 for The Red Heart, at the tender age of 23.He went on to publish dozens of works, winning Governor General's Awards for A Suit of Nettles (1958) and a joint award for Twelve Letters to a Small Town and The Killdeer and Other Plays (1962).He also had an illustrious teaching career at the University of Manitoba and the University of Western Ontario, where he was a professor emeritus of English. He retired in the early 1990s.He was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and an officer of the Order of Canada.He was well known for the trilogy of plays he wrote about the 1880 Donnelly massacre near Lucan in the mid- to late-1970s, Sticks and Stones, The St. Nicholas Hotel and Handcuffs. Several of his plays were performed at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, the most recent being Sticks and Stones in 2005.His sister Wilma McCaig, who lives on Forest Road, in a house built on the edge of her family's farm land, said there have been several tributes submitted to the family since his death last week.Though he was known to most as a playwright and poet, her brother was also a historian. He dove into the research for his Donnelly trilogy with great enthusiasm, but also had a strong interest in genealogy."He made sure kept on track with our family reunion," she said. His other interests included nature, long walks, organic gardening, painting with water colours and riding his bike.He was so fond of his bike, the bus and the train, he didn't bother getting his licence until age 40, taking driver's lessons while on sabbatical in British Columbia."He just thought it was an extra bit of bother," she said. "But once the family was growing up, it got harder and harder to go on public transport."In late 2005, Reaney offered 20 hectares of his childhood homestead, off Line 33, to the Stratford-Perth Museum to build a new home. The farmhouse, built in 1875, was also to be included in the transaction, which did not move forward.He is survived by his wife, poet Colleen Thibaudeau, his son, London Free Press journalist James Stewart Reaney, his wife Susan Wallace and their daughter Elizabeth Wallace Reaney, and his daughter Susan Reaney, her husband Ian Chunn and their daughter Edie Elizabeth Reaney Chunn. Along with McCaig, he is also survived by his brother Ron Cooke. He was predeceased by his son John Andrew Reaney in 1966 and his parents James N. Reaney and Elizabeth Crerar.A second memorial service is expected to be held the first week of July in London.
PHOTO: Playwright James Reaney, 81, died at Marion Villa in London last Wednesday. This photograph was taken in 2002 in front of Reaney's home on Huron Street in London. (Jeff Culbert Photo)