Laddie Burke, better known as travel writer and photographer Laddie Dennis, died in hospital on Feb. 22 in her 89th year.
She had no children of her own but her closest living relative, niece Carol Spittles, was there holding her hand.
“She was a remarkable person, she was everything; fun, loving, warm, interesting and caring and I’m so proud of her,” said Spittles.
Burke was born Adelaide Boissonneau in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1920 and moved to Springfield, Ohio with her family in 1922. It was ten years before they moved back to Canada and settled in Montreal, Quebec where in 1939 Burke began acting courses at the Montreal Repertory Theatre.
“She really wanted to be onstage, but not many english professional stage companies existed in Montreal in the 1940’s, so she turned to radio,” said Spittles.
Burke then began to use her mother’s maiden name, Dennis instead of Boissonneau, because it was shorter and easier to pronounce. She aired her first broadcast in July 1941 as Laddie Dennis, but couldn’t let go of her dream to be an actress.
Burke moved to Toronto in October 1942 to pursue her acting career, as Toronto had many more opportunities for English radio and stage performance than Montreal. While looking for acting work in Toronto, she landed a contract to produce and broadcast a radio show called The Laura Secord Music Box on CFRB. She then moved on to be a staff announcer for a different station and in 1944 started 8 years of freelance work. She worked on CBC dramas, quiz shows and her own shows on CFRB as well as many commercials.
In addition to her acting and radio, Burke was a model in Eaton’s and Simpson’s fashion shows. She was also a photographic model and became a fashion commentator for the Canadian National Exhibition and the Fur Trade Association, both big spring/fall fashion shows.
Burke then auditioned for and won a part in the Canadian Westinghouse commercials. One such commercial aired on the first regular viewing night of live CBC television, making Laddie Burke the first woman to appear on CBC Sept. 8th 1952. She continued as a spokeswoman with Westinghouse for six and a half years, which also gave her the title of longest running spokeswoman on Canadian television.
Burke was an announcer on The Big Revue in 1952 and in 1959 received her first role from the National Film Board in a live one hour drama, which was part of a series called GM Presents. She also played with the American cast of Route 66 when they came to Toronto said Spittles. Burke played small roles on tv episodes of Wojeck (1966) and Play for Today (1971) before getting a part in the movie titled Sunday in the Country in 1974.
In the middle of trying to build her broadcast career, Laddie Burke somehow also found time to fall in love. In 1948, while looking for an inexpensive meal she ended up at the Toronto Central Y Residence. This is where she met and made the first move on her future husband, James Burke, a wheelchair-bound paraplegic who lived at the residence.
“She wasn’t a shy person,” said Spittles “she saw him and went up and spoke to him.”
Laddie’s career took her to London and Hollywood, which made her realize how much she missed James. They were married in Toronto three years after they met, in 1951 and Laddie’s name changed for the last time.
Four years later they moved into the partly renovated garage, previously a stable, of Highland Creek’s Falcon Inn. It was in this house that James Burke, who was a writer and editor, wrote his two novels Flee Seven Ways and The Firefly Hunt.
Laddie and James Burke had a wonderful 55 year marriage before James’ death in 2006 said Spittles. “You couldn’t help but see the love and caring between them, she put her whole heart into everything she did.” Laddie was present when a tree was planted on the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus grounds in memory of her husband James Burke.
In 1970, Laddie decided to ease out of stage life and took a job as Director of Public Relations for the Scarborough Public Libraries, where she stayed for fifteen years until 1985. Working for the library only filled 5 out of 7 days of the week for her, whereas broadcasting was a 24/7 job. So Laddie, finding she had more time on her hands planned her first trip, which was to Morocco. When she returned, she wrote a piece about her time abroad that she managed to sell, which sparked a new career in travel writing for her.
“She just had a great drive to experience everything life has to offer and traveling to other countries gave her more variety,” said Peter Dennis, whose father was Laddie’s cousin. “She found ways to get where she wanted to go, she found a way of traveling that paid for itself.”
Laddie visited over 80 countries in her travels, some of them more then once and wrote stories as well as taking photos of her experiences. Although she was concerned about leaving him behind, James supported her and encouraged Laddie to go on these trips even in her later years. Laddie went on a camping trip to Ethiopia at age 74, asked if she ever worried about Laddie, Spittles said she was fit and more than able.
“I think being on live television taught her discipline,” said Dennis, “there were no second takes.” This discipline found its way into Laddie’s personal life as well, she exercised every morning without fail and in her seventies, seen from the back you would think she was in her twenties.
A couple of weeks before her death, Laddie suffered a minor stroke and was taken to hospital. After another visit for a bump to the head, Dennis picked her up and took her back to his home. They had his wife’s sister and husband over and several dinner parties planned for them. Dennis remembers Laddie insisting on being part of them, saying that while she may not be able to contribute as much vocally, she wanted the stimulation.
“Right to the end she was really [living] life and engaging other people as fully as she could,” said Dennis.
Even in death, Laddie Burke still wanted to give back and be useful, donating her body to the University of Toronto for anatomical or medical research students.