Robert Frank and June Leaf in the doorway of their home at Mabou Mines, Cape Breton. (Photo by: Wayne Lynch and Meg Lunney)
September 15, 2021
-by John Gillis
It was two years ago on September 9th, 2019, at the age of 94, that renowned photographer, film maker, and artist Robert Frank passed away in the Inverness Consolidated Memorial Hospital (ICMH), a half-hour drive from his beloved home in Mabou Mines.
On this second anniversary of his passing, June Leaf and the Inverness Consolidated Memorial Hospital Charitable Foundation are excited to publicly announce the substantial legacy that Robert left to the ICMH Charitable Foundation.
His incredible gift will provide the hospital with a state-of-the-art digital X-ray machine and a barrier-free accessible washroom for patients in the acute care department in Inverness. This generous gift was made in loving memory of Robert’s children, the late Andrea and Pablo Frank.
“It’s not every day something like this happens and this has been in the works for some time,” said Brenda Rankin MacDonald of the ICMH Charitable Foundation. “We would like to sincerely extend our thanks to Robert and his wife, artist June Leaf, for this extraordinary donation to the charitable foundation.”
ICMH physician Dr. N.G. Pillai has known Robert Frank since 1972 and kept in close communication for years. “It is his kindness as well as that of his wife, June Leaf, that will be a great help to the local people. I want to thank them for their contribution. He will be remembered,” said Dr. Pillai.
Heather Gillis, ICMH facility manager, is thankful. “I want to thank the late Robert Frank and June Leaf for their tremendous gift to our hospital,” she said. “This donation gives the ability to continue to provide quality care to our patients. The impact of this donation will service our patients and communities for many years to come.”
“It is so special to know our gift will help people in this area. Robert would be so pleased.” Leaf explained. She noted that this was one of only two such donations made by Robert, the other being a legacy to a hospital for blind children in Israel (Robert’s mother became blind...something that stayed with him throughout his life).
June said she found it difficult to find the words to express the depth of connection and appreciation Robert felt for Cape Breton, the people of Inverness County, and the Inverness hospital doctors, nurses, and staff, but she hoped that in some way this legacy would be an expression of that and of the confidence he had in this facility.
Last Saturday evening, June Leaf welcomed us into her century-plus home at Mabou Mines, Cape Breton, with a warm and engaging smile. It’s the home she had shared for almost 50 years with Robert. This year marks the 52nd anniversary of June and Robert moving to Mabou Coal Mines.
We aren’t in the house long before this writer and spouse Ann Morrison, and Inverness Consolidated Memorial Hospital Charitable Foundation representative Brenda Rankin MacDonald are introduced to Leaf’s house guests – New York film makers John Parlante and Katie Whalen.
During our visit, we exchanged memories of Robert. June shared some of his fond memories of many of their neighbours, including Donald and Mary Ann Beaton and family, Alex Rory and Mary Anne Beaton and family, fiddler Peter MacPhee, Margaret MacInnis, Charlie Joe MacLean, John Archie Rankin, Helen Ann Beaton, Bobby MacMillan (the subject of Robert’s 2002 documentary Paper Route), singer Rita MacNeil (who appeared in Frank’s and Rudy Wurlitzer’s Candy Mountain feature film), and so many more.
“We were in our 40s when we first came to the Coal Mines – it is a special place,” said Leaf. “I remember buying our first wood stove from George Hunt at Hunt’s Store in Mabou (now An Drochaid Museum – The Bridge), our first years here living through the winters, making true friends and loving where we live. I can still remember meeting Dr. Pillai for the first time. He had just started his practice in Inverness and we were only in Mabou a year prior. It was the early 70s and we were some of his first patients. He was still our doctor when Robert passed two years ago and I am forever grateful.”
“Robert said this was the most important place in his life and I’ve been struggling to try to find the words to express how he felt so connected to this place and to the people here. He just was and we both always felt that the people here really ‘got us’ right away and that we ‘got them’ or should I say, we understood each other.”
Asked how they ended up first coming to Cape Breton, June said it was surprising to her as well how their lives took that turn beginning in the late 1960s.
“I remember coming home one day in New York and Robert just saying to me, ‘I think you should go up to Nova Scotia and find us a place there because you’d be good at that,’ and I was someone at that time who was quite happy to be living in the city, to be in the metropolis (she had lived in Chicago, New York City, and Paris, France). Robert however, wasn’t so enamored with city life. But, you know, I decided to go along with his idea – so, even though I hardly knew where Nova Scotia was at that time, or very much about it, not long afterwards, I did fly to Sydney, and I rented a car and spent all my time on Cape Breton Island discovering more about the place. I remember asking people about finding places to rent and even leaving notes on houses asking the same. I ended up in places like Ingonish, Tarbotvale, Cheticamp, and later Mabou and Port Hood and was immediately struck by the beauty of the place and I began to connect with many of the people here and got to know them.
‘I remember the incredible beauty of passing over the Seal Island Bridge and Kelly’s Mountain. I remember it being March and being very cold and people curious about what I was doing here, being a woman alone and out on my own. I remember there not really being any places to eat or rent at that time. Eventually, I got a call from a Mr. Morrison in Sydney, who said he had a house up in Tarbotvale that he would rent to me for $100 a month. Robert later came from New York and we stayed there for a while, but shortly after we found out about three places that were for sale in Inverness County – two on Mabou Harbour Road and one at Mabou Mines. Robert was quite determined to find a place here to buy.
‘We came up to look at the places and as soon as Robert saw the place at Mabou Mines he was just overcome by it, spellbound almost, I can’t explain it. It was just that he had this immediate connection to this old house and the property, the landscape or the place. I remember him writing a letter to the owners, Catherine and her husband Johnny ‘Little Dougald’ Beaton. I recall Robert cutting out the lighthouse from the label on those old sardine cans and he used that as a letterhead to write this very sincere hand-written letter to Catherine. He wrote: ‘ I don’t want to take anything from you but I am in love with that property and home you have there for sale (at Mabou Mines) and I would be very willing to buy it from you.’ Now, Robert was really hoping to convince her to sell it to us, even though we really didn’t even have the money for it at the time, but shortly after that we were fortunate to be able to meet Catherine and Johnny Beaton, who were this wonderful elderly couple here in Mabou who took in boarders and we soon became lifelong friends. Before long, she was equally determined that it would be to us that they would sell the property and sure enough they did.
‘Shortly after that, we began to live at the old house and at that time there was really only one room in the house where the roof didn’t leak. There were huge openings or holes in the roof and the walls and the home was leaning and there were some beams rotting. We hired a wonderful man, Johnny White of Northeast Mabou, to make some repairs and I helped. He came down and went to the shore here and gathered a large old beam that had washed up and he used it to replace the main beam in the house. He was able to jack up the house to make necessary repairs and to shore up the walls. Johnny’s son, Dan Angus White and another worker, Billy (Danny William) MacDonald, repaired the chimney. I remember telling Johnny White how much I loved the view of the hills out the window and he said to me – ‘I’m going to build you a little house,’ meaning he was going to build me a dormer window in that direction, which he did, so that I’ve always been able to enjoy this view,” said June.
The Franks decided soon after they purchased the home at Mabou Mines that they wanted to be more than seasonal visitors or tourists here in Mabou. They soon immigrated to Canada, and began to stay for extended periods, rather than just spending their summers here. June told The Oran that she and Robert felt that their relationships with people here deepened after that. People saw that they were committed to the place and then Cape Bretoners began to share more of their lives with them.
“I think they began to feel like we now understood more about their lives and they opened up to us more. It’s an entirely different experience from seeing the place as a tourist, and it’s different having people see you as a permanent resident rather than a tourist,” said June.
Robert and June were both inspired to produce much of their creative work here in Cape Breton in their more than 50 years here, Robert producing many new photographs and making many of his first films and videos here, both independent and experimental short works as well as more lengthy features (i.e. Candy Mountain) and collaborations with other artists, film makers, writers, or musicians.
Leaf still creates art in her Mabou Mines studio and she said she dearly missed being able to return here over the past two years (due mainly to the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions) and she noted that she is so pleased to be back now these past three weeks.
“A lot has changed and even after being back for three weeks it doesn’t seem like very long, but it’s important to honour Robert’s wishes and to mark the second anniversary of his passing with this donation. Robert and I were so appreciative of all the care we received throughout the years at the Inverness hospital and we wanted to extend our thanks,” said Leaf. “He and I have always had great confidence in the care and support we received there. Robert was thankful to spend his final days here rather than in New York City,” June told The Oran this week.
Brenda Rankin MacDonald, ICMH Charitable Foundation fundraising co-ordinator, expressed the foundation’s gratitude for the generous gift. “We are overwhelmed,” she said. “For Robert and June to think of our Inverness County residents, and to think of how both residents and visitors to the area will benefit from these purchases, is truly amazing and inspiring. We sincerely say thank you!”
For further information on the ICMH Charitable Foundation, contact Brenda Rankin MacDonald at 902-258-2236.
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