City Centre Mirror
After 108 years, Gladys O'Connor still has a bit of the performer in her.
O'Connor, who celebrated her 108th birthday with fellow residents of the O'Neill Centre near Bloor and Christie streets Monday, Nov. 28, worked for some 50 years at Empire Wallpapers before embarking on a career as a professional actress.
Upon arriving at the party, she was quick to ask "How's my hair?" before staff and guests took time to reminisce about her life.
The secret to her longevity is simple - she lives by the old adage "an apple a day keeps the doctor away" but adds a twist with "brandy at night helps you sleep tight."
In terms of the latter, she is not particularly choosy.
"I don't know the names of brandies," she said. "As long as it says 'brandy' on it, I like it."
O'Connor moved to Canada from London with her family as a young girl. The O'Connors were initially slated to cross the Atlantic on the Titanic's ill-fated maiden voyage, but circumstances made that impossible.
"When the time came, Gladys' father couldn't afford it," said longtime friend Anne Tait. "He had to disappoint his family by not coming over on the Titanic. It shows that there can be a good side to being poor."
The family crossed on the next ship, whereupon passengers and crew stopped at the site of the Titanic's sinking to sing 'Nearer My God To Thee.'
O'Connor's mother was pregnant during the crossing and died in childbirth shortly after the family settled in Canada. Gladys, then nine years old, and one of her sisters assumed the reins as the matriarchs of the household.
While the O'Connor family initially settled in Hamilton, they soon moved to Toronto.
"Her father was a marble polisher and he couldn't get work in Hamilton," Tait said. "They came to Toronto and on his first day here, he came home and said 'I got a job!'"
The family moved into a home on Victoria Street downtown, and O'Connor began her career at Empire Wallpapers as a teen. While her primary job was accounting, she took on any and all tasks asked of her.
"I did mostly paperwork, but when they were short-handed, they'd send me in the store," O'Connor said. "I could wait on customers. I could do almost anything in the store."
After 50 years there, she retired and, years later, embarked on a career in television and movies. She has appeared in films ranging from Billy Madison and Half Baked to Fly Away Home and The Long Kiss Goodnight. Canadian audiences may recognize her from the '30 Helens Agree' segments on The Kids in the Hall.
The O'Neill Centre brought in some exotic animals, including a parrot, a tortoise, an albino African hedgehog and a chinchilla - O'Connor's favourite - to help the 108-year-old celebrate her birthday.