Cory O'Kelly, longtime CBC Ottawa storyteller, dead at 73

Cory O'Kelly, longtime CBC Ottawa storyteller, dead at 73

Oct 09, 2020

Ottawa (Canada) October 9: Cory O'Kelly, the Irish-born charmer and natural-born storyteller who left his indelible imprint on Ottawa and its people over a 30-year career at CBC, has died. He was 73.
When O'Kelly retired in 2014, CBC decided to assemble a retrospective of his work. Producers found a stunning 5,000 stories in the archives under his name, many from his years covering Ottawa city hall, every one a testament to O'Kelly's gift for finding the humour and humanity in places where those things can sometimes be in short supply.
O'Kelly's many friends and colleagues at CBC remember a man who was generous with his time and experience, a man who was committed to his craft but always made time for a little mischief. His family - Andrea, his wife of 32 years, daughters Kristen and Kelsey, and son Kieran - remember a man whose devotion knew no bounds.
Cory O'Kelly was born in Dublin on Nov. 27, 1946, and with his mother sailed for Canada at the age of seven to join his father. It was no easy crossing: a voyage that should have taken five days dragged on over a couple weeks thanks to Hurricane Hazel.
O'Kelly spent part of his boyhood living on the Toronto Islands, back when hundreds of year-round residents called them home. His parents had what Andrea O'Kelly called a "disjointed marriage" - sometimes his father was there, and sometimes he wasn't.
Move to Thunder Bay
Around 1956, the family moved to Thunder Bay, Ont., where O'Kelly's father had secured a job. His sister Carole and brother Brian were born soon after, but there, too, home life was less than idyllic, and young Cory was soon expected to start paying his own way.
At 16, his father gone again and a new man in the house, O'Kelly's mother marched him down to the offices of the Chronicle-Journal and demanded her son be given a job.
"She dragged me into a newspaper office and said, 'This kid can write. Give him a chance.' So they put me on for a week and here I am 50 years later,'" O'Kelly recalled decades after.
O'Kelly later shifted to CBC Radio in Thunder Bay, and it was there that he was given perhaps his most famous assignment, one that still made him emotional when he told the story years later. That's O'Kelly's microphone in the frame when a 22-year-old Terry Fox, speaking to reporters from a stretcher on Sept. 2, 1980, tearfully announced the Marathon of Hope had come to an end.
Talking to people
O'Kelly moved to CBC Television in Ottawa in 1984, and while he spent most of his time covering municipal affairs, he was especially proud of Metro, a local current affairs program he co-hosted for three years in the late 1980s. A favourite segment was called Open Your Purse, in which O'Kelly somehow convinced unsuspecting women to dump out their handbags and discuss the contents for the enjoyment of viewers at home.
"There's some personal stuff in there," one surprised woman objected. "That's OK, we've seen it all," O'Kelly replied as her belongings, including a court summons, spilled forth.
That ability to talk to nearly anyone about nearly anything, and make it all seem like great fun, quickly became O'Kelly's calling card.
"For 20-odd years Cory would call me every morning on his bus ride to work from Kanata to discuss all of his story ideas, many of which he found because he had just been out talking to people," recalled longtime CBC assignment editor Kim Drummond. "He could work the room better than a politician. People would tell him their stories and then he would make TV."
O'Kelly covered the city like no one else, once sifting through the recycling bins of local politicians to see what secrets they held. He'd occasionally venture out in the guise of his Finnish alter-ego Urho, and even doffed his familiar trench coat - along with everything else - to get the inside scoop on a nudist colony.
O'Kelly had a way of turning relatively mundane events into must-watch TV, like the territorial blackbird that dive-bombed joggers who strayed too near its nest beside the Rideau Canal. O'Kelly knew people would watch that stuff all day.
He was a shameless ally of local business owners, like "Soup Guy" Claudio Fracassi, who named one of his recipes after O'Kelly, or longtime hotdog vendor Terry Scanlon, who always seemed to know which way the wind was blowing down at Bank and Laurier. It wasn't the prospect of a culinary quid-pro-quo that appealed to O'Kelly, a self-described foodie - it was his firm belief that while the big stories might be at city hall, the important ones were out on the street.
Love at first sight
It was at the former Ottawa city hall where O'Kelly, recently arrived from Thunder Bay and sniffing around for a story, first caught the attention of Andrea Nolan, then executive assistant to an alderman.
"I was standing at the end of a long hallway ... and I just stopped talking. I said, 'Who's that guy who just walked in?'" she recalled. A colleague told her he was the new municipal reporter from CBC. "I said . 'I'm going to marry that man. That was it.'"
O'Kelly knew it too, and within 10 days they were talking about spending the rest of their lives together.
"Cory said, 'You're going to marry me. You know that, don't you?"
They married in September 1988, and their children arrived in quick succession. The family built a happy life together in Kanata. When money was scarce, they'd put the kids to bed early and enjoy candlelit dinners at home.
O'Kelly enjoyed cooking, golfing and gardening, and on weekends he and Andrea would set out on what he called "bikes and beer" adventures around town. But his favourite place to be was always at home with his whole family.
"His family was his everything," Andrea O'Kelly said. "His kids were his greatest joy and nothing made him happier than sitting on our deck in the sun all together. He called our family 'the nest,' formed from the circle that Cory and I made when we married - a safe and loving place for us all to be. That made his kind blue eyes sparkle."
In 2016, two years after retiring from CBC, O'Kelly was diagnosed with myeloma, a malignant tumour of the bone marrow. He underwent treatment and carried on bravely with his family at his side. Never one to complain, even his doctors remarked on his upbeat attitude.
In late September, O'Kelly contracted an infection and was admitted to hospital for the final time. His immune system compromised by the cancer, he died Wednesday afternoon.
Due to the pandemic, funeral arrangements are on hold, but his family hopes to hold a celebration of life when circumstances allow - ideally next St. Patrick's Day.
Source: CBC News