Launa May Mathias was born on May 10, 1944, in Middleton, N.S., to Florence “Flora” Roberts, a farm girl from Long Point, N.B., and John Mathias, a Welsh naval officer who was stationed in Halifax during the Second World War. John moved the family to Wales after the war, but promised to sail them home soon. He never did.
So, missing her family, Flora split from John, took two of their three children—Launa and Robert—and boarded a ship in 1950 that was headed to Halifax. (Their third child, Anne, stayed in Wales.) In Halifax, she met another naval officer, William Brade, and remarried. The family spent summers at their 1917 farmhouse in Long Point. There was no electricity or running water, but there were plenty of blueberries to pick and cousins to paddle with in their rowboat. Launa loved life on the farm.
After finishing high school, she moved to Oshawa, Ont., to study graphic design. After graduation, she moved back to Halifax where she was literally swept off her feet at the Fleet Club by Kenny Preston, a swift-footed naval officer. They married in 1961 and adopted a baby boy, Michael, from Launa’s cousin in Saint John, N.B., who was unable to care for him. The couple pooled their resources with Launa’s mother and bought a house in Halifax. They lived upstairs and rented out the first floor.
It was the first of several rental units that the family would acquire. By 1964, they had earned enough money to buy a 23-room manor, the biggest house in Waverley, N.S., just north of Halifax. Flora and Launa started a printing company in the servants’ quarters and hired Kenny to do the manual work. But business was slow, so Launa took a second job as office manager of a vinyl siding company. She spent her spare time researching family history. Her cousin, Gail Roberts, recalls being dragged to the archives in Fredericton. There, Launa discovered her family was part Acadian.
One day, Launa told her cousin Gail that she was in love with “a country gentleman” at work. Graham Lunn, who was married with three kids when they met, divorced his wife in 1973 to marry Launa, who left Kenny the same year. Launa and Graham married on June 21, 1974. Graham took over some of the printing work and maintenance of the apartments. He helped raise Michael, and the Lunns soon adopted two more children, Amber and Anthony. And their home acted as an emergency foster care shelter. “You were never quite sure who would be there when you arrived,” says Gail. There was also plenty of room in the house for Graham’s children—Bryan, Michelle and Crystal—who would visit on weekends.
In 1977, Graham and Launa sewed maple leafs on their backpacks and spent six months travelling the world. They visited Lenin’s grave, the Great Wall of China and the pyramids of Egypt. Back in Canada, Launa told her son Bryan how thrilled she was to see the historical sites she had read about. When Bryan and Michael enrolled at St. Mary’s University in 1980, Launa enrolled, too. It was a good thing she learned a new skill. After the part of the manor that housed the printing business burned down in 1982, she found work as a supply history teacher. Graham worked as a hospital caretaker.
Many years, on the children’s last day of school, Graham and Launa would pick them up in a big orange school bus. The family criss-crossed the continent. Spurred on by Launa’s passion for history, they stopped at museums and graveyards. “Vacation was like school for us,” recalls Amber, with their mother providing the lessons.
In 2004, Graham retired from the hospital to work solely on the income properties. Launa retired too and focused on teaching her grandchildren their family history. For Remembrance Day in 2008, she and Flora brought Amber’s son Roger to Ypres, Belgium, to visit the grave of a great-uncle killed in the First World War.
Last Thanksgiving, Launa told the family that she, Graham and Flora were moving to the family farm.
She wanted to enjoy the peace and simplicity she had enjoyed as a child. While they recently installed a flush toilet, new floors and a propane refrigerator, there was no immediate plan to install electricity, says Bryan: “They liked not having a phone, not having another house in sight, using the kerosene lanterns [for light].” In the early hours of July 17, a fire broke out in the kitchen. The house didn’t have smoke detectors. Graham, 69, Launa, 66, and Flora, 83, were sleeping when the fire started. All three perished.
Looking for more?
Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.