“The curious never get old.” It’s a line from a song by Chris Brown and Kate Fenner, who were playlist mainstays on my campus radio program (1992-2002). I thought of that phrase often when remembering my friend Julia Ward, who passed away last week after her third bout with cancer. She was 52. She leaves a devoted husband, two incredible girls in their early 20s, a teenage boy (who I sadly never got to know), and many, many devout friends drawn to her spirit.
What follows is what I read at her wake in Guelph on Saturday. I was the only speaker who wasn’t a family member, neighbour or close friend. In some ways, what I said was selfish: what this woman meant to me, me, me, someone who probably knew her less than everyone else in the room. I wasn’t there to watch her struggles of the last five years. We never had conversations lasting several hours. We only broke bread on a handful of occasions. And yet, I think it says something about a person when she manages to touch someone who barely knew her, and that’s what I wanted to articulate.
I’m posting this here because I think our relationship also speaks to the relationship between a fan and any artist or writer or broadcaster attempting to communicate to the world—what it means to get a fan letter, what it means to connect a face to a voice, what it means to find out that someone found that bottle you tossed in the ocean and took your message to heart.
I first met Julia because she was a fan of my campus radio show. Hosting and programming a campus radio show is, for many and certainly for me , a very personal endeavour. In many ways, you’re baring your many idiosyncrasies and tastes for the world to hear. You’re inviting them into your bedroom, your living room, your head. Whatever is going on in your life is bound to be reflected in your choices. It can be an isolating experience: just you and the mic and some records in the booth, with no possible way to know how many people—if, in fact, any at all—are listening to you.
The only time you really find out is when someone picks up the phone and calls in a request, or when, once a year, you turn into a huckster and beg your hypothetical audience to donate to the station during a fundraising drive. Mostly, it’s just people you know on the other end of the line, people who already like the music you do, people you work with, people you drink with. But I also had Julia.
For whatever reason, Julia was a total stranger who loved my show. We didn’t have any mutual friends—we still don’t, really. She was 10 years older than me. She had a real job and two young girls to raise; I had nothing of the sort. I suspect, as I now know about people over 30, that though she still loved music passionately, it was harder and harder to find reliable sources of new inspiration. When you find one, it can become a lifeline.
Having a fan outside of your own experience is a huge boost. It means you’re not just operating in a vacuum. It means you’re actually connecting with people. Julia called in requests and pledged generously to the show. But I’d also made a new friend. It’s not like we saw each other socially, but whenever we’d talk on the request line or see each other downtown there would be this unspoken shared acknowledgment that was more than just a casual greeting. It was: “Oh yes, you—I get you. You and I, we’re the same tribe. You’re one of the good ones.”
I wasn’t the only one. Tellingingly enough, she had a similar relationship with a host of another morning radio show on CFRU. Years later, that host and I got together. A few years after that, we moved in together. A few years after that, we had a child together. Julia was always excited about every one of these developments, and my fondest memories of her now are of when we’d visit her as a family in the past two years.
She always had that glow. She always had a giving spirit. She always had that look in her eye that said, “I believe in you.” I felt like Julia Ward was always on my side, rooting for me. And I feel incredibly richer for that. I know I’m not the only one.