Janet Hayward didn’t show too much outward excitement Friday night as she walked toward a Gander, N.L., theatre to see the musical that inspired what she calls her “Newfoundland Quest” — but she did arrive a full hour early.
The 54-year-old high school teacher from Indiana has spent the past three weeks driving all over Newfoundland to capture the essence of its people, culture and landscape, and relay it for her students. She began dreaming of the trip after she saw “Come From Away” over a year ago on Apple TV Plus. The musical tells the story of the town’s efforts to care for thousands of people stranded there on planes grounded after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S.
The story gripped her, and she couldn’t let it go. So she applied for, and won, a special grant for teachers in Indiana to embark on the journey.
“It’s the kindness of the whole thing,” Hayward said in an interview. “I really wanted to meet the people behind the kindness.”
She is among many, from all over the world, who have come to Gander in search of that kindness. And she was not disappointed.
Thirty-eight planes carrying more than 6,500 people were ordered to land at the Gander airport on Sept. 11, 2001. The town has a population of about 11,800 people and “Come From Away” is about those who opened their homes, community halls and businesses to shelter the “plane people” for the five days they were stranded. Its characters are based on real people in Gander, and the real things they did to dampen the passengers’ horror as they learned what had happened.
The musical was a smash on Broadway, running for a record-setting five years at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in New York City. The Gander production is the first fully staged presentation of the musical in its hometown, according to Michael Rubinoff, the play’s originating producer. He congratulated Friday night’s crowd for snagging “the hottest theatre tickets on the planet.”
Barbara Amiel Pearson first saw the musical in 2017, during a particularly dark time in her life. She lives in Florida, and she said she was “despondent” after Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 election. “I had lost hope in this country, I had lost hope in the world, I had lost hope in people,” she said in an interview this week. “And then I see this play … and I felt like I had to go and see if people could really be this good.”
She arrived in Gander for the first time in October 2017. “I had one goal: I wanted to meet Newfoundlanders,” she said. So she went to the Tim Hortons across from her hotel and started talking to people.
Amiel Pearson, 72, said she met people on that trip she is still friends with today, including Gander resident Diane Davis, who is the inspiration for the character Beulah Davis in the play.
As is a common experience for many Newfoundland visitors, both Pearson and Hayward were invited into strangers’ homes for meals, tea and lengthy chats.
Amiel Pearson returned to Gander in 2019, and she’ll be arriving again next month; she has front-row tickets for the “Come From Away” performance on Aug. 12. She says her will includes instructions for her two daughters to use part of their inheritance to visit Newfoundland. “It really caused a profound change in my life,” she said.
Derm Flynn said he’s heard many stories like Hayward’s and Amiel Pearson’s, but he’s still moved by each one. He was mayor of nearby Appleton, N.L., on Sept. 11, 2001. He and his wife, Dianne, took in six passengers.
“We’re not used to a big deal being made of the fact that we can invite someone into our home for a cup of tea,” he said this week, adding that Newfoundlanders don’t want to be seen as “blowing their own horns.”
“There are contrary Newfoundlanders, just as there are contrary people all over the world,” he added.
The Flynns’ story is told through the Derm Flynn character in “Come From Away.” About a year after the play opened on Broadway, they began hosting an event for tourists called Meet The Flynns, where they invite people into their home for lunch, tea and a chat. They’ve entertained guests from the rest of Canada, the United States, Australia and Germany, he said.
They charge for the visit, but it’s a way to give people who’ve seen the play the kind of welcoming experience they’re looking for, Flynn said.
Hayward hopes to instil in her students a sense of the kindness she has discovered in Newfoundland. To that end, she plans to start an after-school social club. She’ll get students together to talk about themselves and their interests and what they’d like to contribute to their community. And then, together, they’ll undertake “one wonderful kind act or service a month,” she said.
In the meantime, her husband and both of her sons have joined her for different parts of her Newfoundland adventure, and they’ve loved it as much as she has, she said.
“We’ll definitely be back.”
Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 8, 2023.