Jacqui Gordon was a memorable teacher and colourful community supporter

Jacqui Gordon with great-grandson Eli. photos supplied

Affectionately nicknamed “the Flying Tiger” by her late brother Craege, Jacqueline Anne Gordon, known for her whirlwind energy, a love of bright colours, her maple fudge, her unusual driving skills and the ever-present dangling earrings, passed away peacefully on February 21 in her 87th year. 

The first of six children born to Malcolm and Helen McQuarrie in Gore Bay in 1931, Ms. Gordon was shaped by world events: the Great Depression, World War II and decades of fast paced change.  She firmly believed that she had lived through the peak of the modern era, and while grateful for the experience she did have some concerns for her grandchildren and great-grandchildren in the future.

At the time of her passing there were 11 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, born to five children she shared with her husband of 62 years, Stanley William Gordon, who predeceased her in 2015. She met Stan at Aird Island United Church Camp in 1952. “I didn’t like him at all,” she said once of their initial meeting. “The first thing I remember about him is that he yanked on my pigtails.”

Her own wicked sense of humour proved a good match for Mr. Gordon. Ms. Gordon was a practical joker and loved to tease. Daughter Janyn Towns relates that “once she cut a hole in the bottom of a box of chocolates and ate them out of that hole while the rest of the box was still fully wrapped in order to deter and fool Stan.”

Sister Molly McQuarrie explains, “She loved to tease. Taking yourself too seriously was impossible. Yet at the same time, she was compassionate and worked hard at giving us a second, third, umpteenth chance to right things, to reach our better selves.”

Stan Gordon with Jacqui as teenagers in this undated photo.

“Mom was our rock, and to think in terms of geology, she was metamorphic for sure, changing her shape in response to our current needs and becoming the stronger for all of it. She most certainly did not grow any moss – she moved way too quickly for that!” son Todd Gordon says.  “She just truly wanted us to succeed, in the way that made sense to each of us. And to strive to be good – not perfect – human beings. To be learners. To have compassion. To be real.”

Ms. Gordon’s passion was art, and even more so, teaching art. She began her teaching career in a one room rural school, and ended it 30 years later at Manitoulin Secondary School (MSS).  She taught in five rural elementary one-room schools between 1957 and 1969 and was art teacher at MSS from 1969 (when the school opened) until her retirement in 1987. She taught in Long Bay, at Pleasant Valley, on Barrie Island as well as in Brittainville.  In autumn 1966 she became principal at Billings and stayed for three years before moving to the new high school.

Sister Molly remembers back to Grade 3 and going to a school where Ms. Gordon was teaching, and listening to Jacqui tell the story of The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Anderson. “She had us do a watercolour afterward. It was my first time ever to paint – and my last, too, I think. I concentrated so hard on the painting and expressing the effect of the story on me. Then I picked it up to hold it at arms length and it ran. I was devastated and hugely embarrassed. Jacqui just laughed and said, “Just paint over the runny streaks!” So many things were fixable in her eyes.

Jacqui was known for her love of hats.

“She was anything if not adaptable, and she learned those skills in the resource and support scarcity of the one room school under a very small, single municipality school board,” says son Todd. “She saw herself as a better art teacher than practitioner. She was good at teaching the fundamentals of art and art history but more importantly she was an enabler of creativity and self-expression. She was broadly popular among students and a general positive overall influence within the school.”

One time Ms. Gordon went along as a chaperone on one of the MSS canoe trips. Trip leaders Pat McGill and John Strickland were skeptical about the capabilities of this small, asthmatic woman. It didn’t take them long to be impressed by her tenacity, ever-positive attitude, and her ability to handle students. That commitment and drive for teaching and learning stayed strong to the end, long after retirement. She continued to teach grandchildren, retirees at Elder Hostel events and tourists on tour buses. She was always eagerly passing on interesting info gleaned from pages of the thousands of novels, magazines, or television shows that she loved.

Cousin Blair Graham remembers having Ms. Gordon as a teacher. “She wasn’t your usual book learning type,” he said. What stands out in his memory is a field trip to measure the height and the width of Bridal Veil Falls. “There we were,” he said, “standing at the brow of the falls with the tape measure dangling over to the not-so-foolhardy ones below.” As a teacher, she was certainly memorable.

Ms. Gordon never stopped teaching. “Christie, Jacqui and I travelled together every fall for the last five years,” says Molly. “On Mackinac Island she walked farther than we thought she could in spite of asthma, rain, cold and wind. We thoroughly enjoyed the buildings and the history of the island. She related it all to the Manitoulin history she told on the bus trips around Manitoulin and the classes she taught at school. Her connections made the Mackinac history so much more real.”

Jacqui Gordon with great-granddaughter Brynn.
photos supplied

She never stopped learning, either. It was important for her to keep up to date. She took courses, learned new things, all the time. “She did not think like an 86-year-old lady,” says daughter Janyn. “We often said, you are moving like you are still 45-years-old but your body is older…slow down and pay attention, because she would be turning in her mind ahead of her body which often resulted in accidents, stumbles or car accidents.”

Another passion was community: her community of Billings, of Manitoulin, and of Canada. Ms. Gordon was active in her church (St. Paul’s United), sang in the choir, took on the role of lay minister and held many executive positions within the church. She led Explorers, Girl Guides, and Canadian Girls in Training. She spent 28 years working with developmentally challenged children at Community Living Manitoulin (initially the Flower of Hope School in Gore Bay and then Hope Farm in Mindemoya), serving as board chair for some of that time. “I was at the helm when the Hope Farm was established as a permanent home for these kids,” she told The Expositor previously. “The Hope Farm gave them a place to go when they graduated from the education system. John Lane, MPP, helped find the letter we had sent to make this happen and he made sure it got to the person who had to sign it. Mindemoya was so helpful in taking on this project when other communities were not so enthusiastic in taking it on.”

In June 2017 she was recognized as Billings Township’s Senior of the Year. Jacqui brought a number of useful skills, methods and experience to her community work, including creativity, drive, a sense of common purpose, a strong sense of advocacy, and her open mindedness. 

“I think of her heart for her community,” says Janyn. “She often rallied, argued, stormed and formed for causes in her community. Her love of Manitoulin and the character of this place was large.”

Jacqui Gordon with great-grandson Eli.
photos supplied

Cousin Nancy Vaillancourt agrees.  Though Ms. Vaillancourt left Kagawong more than 45 years ago, she still feels the strong sense of community when she visits. She attributes the feeling to her mother, Jessie Graham, and Ms. Gordon. “Whether it was picking up litter on Earth Day or helping prepare and serve dinner for a fundraising event, usually right in the middle of it all was Aunt Jacqui, my Mom and all their friends.”

“Recipients of their efforts included the two community churches, special events and the Old Mill Heritage Museum,” she continued. “For one project in particular, Aunt Jacqui organized the Gordon/McDougall descendant females to donate their wedding dresses for an exhibit at the museum that displayed for two summer seasons.”

Ms. Vaillancourt also remembers Jacqui and Stan Gordon for acting as family historians. “The thing I will be forever grateful to Aunt Jacqui and Uncle Stan for was their love of family history,” she said. “After the passing of my grandparents, they had become the keepers of the Gordon and McDougall family photos and special pieces. Before I arrived, Aunt Jacqui would have things all laid out on the dining room table, in piles by family branch. As we sorted through them, she and Uncle Stan would tell stories  – yes, maybe a few of Uncle Stan’s stories were a bit taller than the others.”

With the exception of a few years spent at normal school (an early version of teachers college), the Ontario College of Art, and a teaching stint in St. Catharines, Ms. Gordon spent her entire life on Manitoulin. She realized that Manitoulin really was the best place to live, although it took her a while to come to that conclusion, she said. She travelled extensively but wouldn’t think of moving away from this place where so many of her ancestors had chosen to live. That there was both history and future here had made the Island particularly special for her.

How do you sum up a life well lived? Ms. Gordon has certainly left her imprint on the lives of countless persons, groups and organizations that experienced the force of nature that was Jacqui Gordon. Throughout her lifetime, Ms. Gordon touched many other lives as an educator, artist, mentor, friend, mother and grandmother. She maintained a zest for life and never missed an opportunity to have fun or make someone laugh. 

By all accounts, she was very accepting of almost everyone and was genuinely interested in who people were, where they came from and what their life was about. She always made newcomers feel they were a welcome part of the village. She donated to local charities and quietly supported individuals in the community who needed help, trying to carefully ensure they were not embarrassed by her support.

Manitoulin Island has indeed lost a rare gem.