A Life's Story
August 19, 2023
Little Dreamer, big life
Winnipeg’s Terri Layne was a ‘consummate entertainer’ who made her mark on stages across the country as a singer-songwriter and made her mark at home as a supportive mom of adopted siblings
By: Eva Wasney
‘Dreams don’t come true, except for a few,” sings Terri Layne in a low, warm timbre on a crackly vintage recording.
An original song, Little Dreamer tells the story of a young girl who dares to reach for the stars in hopes of becoming “one of the lucky kind.” The lyrics could be an autobiography of Layne’s life — although her accomplishments had little to do with luck.
“She knew what she wanted in her life and she did what she wanted in her life,” daughter Sheri Slater says of her late mother. “She had a plan.”
Terri Layne was the stage name of Terri Sarenchuk-Petit-Drad, born Helen Cherwonuk in Winnipeg in 1934. A singer, songwriter, hairdresser, entrepreneur and community booster, Terri charted her own path until the very end. Following a difficult, debilitating cancer fight, she opted for a medically assisted death in June at the age of 89.
Music was a constant companion.
“The day that she passed, she said, ‘Tell me what the No. 1 song is for this day, I want to hear it,’” Slater says. So, at her hospital bedside, the family cued up Last Night by Morgan Wallen, a whiskey-soaked country ballad that is a far cry from the matriarch’s favourite tune, I Can See Clearly Now.
The second-oldest of four children, Layne grew up in Winnipeg’s Point Douglas neighbourhood, where times were tough but the family never went hungry.
She played fastball in high school and was drafted by the Canadian Ukrainian Athletic Club. At the age of 21, the self-taught hairstylist opened her own salon and later joined the CBC’s makeup department — a gig that offered introductions to many movers and shakers and opened the door to a jet-setting professional singing career in the 1960s.
She assumed the stage name Layne (after being told her Ukrainian surname was too long) and became a regular fixture at now-gone local venues the Hollow Mug and City Centre Hotel lounge.
There are mentions in the Free Press archives of her singing with the Northern Gentlemen, a country-western group. She performed twice nightly at Champs Motor Inn as Diamond Lil, a burlesque act styled after Mae West’s character of the same name.
Niece Marilyn Erhart watched her aunt sing and deliver jokes at the City Centre every Thursday when she was a teen. The evenings usually included an onstage dedication of James Taylor’s You’ve Got a Friend.
“She was just a consummate entertainer,” says Erhart, who saw her aunt, whom she called Helen, as a glamorous celebrity. “She used to come to our birthday parties and bring her banjo and entertain all the girls from school.”
The personable, funny performer captivated nightclub audiences across the country and made connections in Nashville, where she made at least one recording of original songs.
After an amicable split with her first husband, Terry Sarenchuk, she met her second love, Lou Petit, during a performance. Described as a “jolly Frenchman” by Erhart, the pair were polar opposites and ideal counterparts.
“He was just a beautiful, beautiful soul and that’s what she saw in him,” Erhart says.
Life moved from the stage to the country following their marriage. The couple moved to Ile des Chênes, where Petit ran a trucking and gravel business. Layne got involved in the operation and started her own venture in town — a gift shop called Petit Four. She became a community correspondent for The Carillon newspaper and volunteered to run the local rec centre.
“She did so much, her whole life was nothing but go, go, go,” Slater says. “She was pretty amazing.”
Despite myriad responsibilities, there was something missing: children.
In 1977, Layne and Petit adopted three-year-old Sheri and her five-year-old brother Fern. The siblings were taken from their birth family during the ’60s Scoop and spoke no English upon their arrival in Ile des Chênes.
“It was a difficult time,” Slater says of the transition. “But it ended up working out really good.”
Terri was fiercely protective of her kids and supportive of their desire to reconnect with family in adulthood. She kept a scrapbook of the kids’ childhood, which she shared with their birth mother after helping facilitate a reunion.
“She would say, ‘You’re my family, but if you find (more) family and you want them to meet me, go ahead, bring them over,’ she had open arms for everyone,” Slater says, adding that she felt lucky to have two moms.
Erhart also spoke about her aunt’s hospitality.
“She made everybody feel welcome,” she says. “If people came into her house, she was the kind of person who would take your hands and look into your eyes as she greeted you.”
Music remained an important part of Layne’s life. A woman of faith, she often led the kids in impromptu gospel singalongs at home and took part in several choir groups, including the Sisters of the Holy Rock.
While Slater didn’t inherit her mother’s pipes, she does share her outgoing personality, sense of humour, knack for entertaining and love of animals — Layne took in strays of all kinds and kept the birds and feral cats that came into her yard well fed.
After Petit died in 1994, Layne remarried for a third time; however, her husband, Frank Drad, died within a year of the union. Her spirituality kept her going during difficult times.
“She had a lot of wisdom,” says Erhart, who regularly phoned her aunt for sage advice. “She’s always been that light in my life and she’s always been that person I admired and looked up to.
“Strong and independent are two worlds I’d use to describe her. And warm.”
While Layne’s death has left a larger-than-life hole in the family, her music lives on. Slater’s daughter is in the process of learning how to play Little Dreamer on her late grandmother’s guitar.