Obituary: Jean McLennan: July 21, 1918 – June 17, 2021

A regular in the annual Southeast Manitoulin Lions Summer Fest parade, Jean McLennan was always chauffered by Harold Clarke.

Hers was the very definition of a life well-lived

MANITOWANING – Throughout her long life, Jean McLennan was nothing short of an irresistible force when it came to building the community she loved—just ask anyone who had the temerity to stand between Ms. McLennan and her goal.

In the end, Ms. McLennan left this world the way she had always lived—on her own terms. Told that she would not be leaving the hospital as she entered her final hours in palliative care, Ms. McLennan insisted that she would end her days at her beloved Lake Manitou cottage. An ambulance transported her to the cottage where she passed peacefully at the age of 102 (103 this coming July 21).

Almost unto her last breath, Ms. McLennan was involved in her community—the very epitome of the community volunteer, a mover and shaker to the end.

“With a broken heart I said ‘until we meet again’ to my beauty, my queen and most often referred to as ‘my boss’ yesterday,” said granddaughter Mel Carr in a post following Ms. McLennan’s passing. “Even in her last hours, she was still the boss and giving order to get things done. She wanted to get back to the place she called home at the cottage on Lake Manitou. Like everything she did, she made it happen.” 

Ms. McLennan was born on July 21, 1918, while the First World War still rampaged across the globe. Her parents were Elias and Grace (nee Mitchell) Hutchinson. The oldest of six children, Doris, Bettina, Douglas, Mary Louise and Harold, but sadly, Harold, the youngest, died of a streptococcus infection at 15 months. She was also predeceased by her daughter the late Jill Carr.

She described her early days growing up on Manitoulin to Now and Then’s Petra Wall as typical of children in the days before Second World War. “At the end of the day, we had to round up cows and sheep from the farm, a mile away, maneuvering them across the bridge to our barn.” Ms. McLennan also helped to milk cows, feed the calves, plant potatoes and drive the horses at her uncle’s farm, at haying time.

Showing the iron determination that would become the hallmark of her life, Ms. McLennan insisted that she attend school at age four because she said didn’t want to stay home when her older cousin headed out to class. Her parents and the teacher eventually relented. Her pet lamb Paully would dutifully follow Ms. McLennan to the one-room schoolhouse where Ms. McLennan scandalized her cousin by having a nap after lunch. By high school she was organizing badminton clubs and school dances. Ms. McLennan would go on to graduate from business college in Owen Sound.

Ms. McLennan cuts a rug with Graham Lloyd during her 100th birthday celebrations.

Not one to fall prey to superstition, Ms. McLennan married her husband Gladdin (Happy) McLennan in 1942 on Friday the 13th. Although the couple had first started courting in high school, it was eight years later that the couple decided to tie the knot while he was serving in the armed forces during the Second World War—Mr. McLennan spent three years serving overseas in 

theatres across Europe. Ms. McLennan passed the time waiting for her Happy to return by working in a Toronto munitions plant among other war-effort related occupations.

Upon Mr. McLennan’s return in 1946 the couple returned to Manitoulin.

Ms. McLennan expressed her thoughts on volunteerism to The Expositor when approached during Volunteer Week coverage years past. “Volunteering is rewarding,” she said. “The only reason I volunteer is I’m proud of my community and happy to live in a place we can be proud of. Do what you want to do to make it better.”

“My parents taught us to give that extra effort to the community and that did much to choose my path in life,” she said. “The greatest pleasure comes from doing something worthwhile for others. Ours is a community of volunteers. There are so many here willing to help. I always get a ‘yes’ when I ask,” she insists. “If someone says ‘no’ that means they have a legitimate reason for saying ‘no,’ and no more questions are asked.”

Small wonder Ms. McLennan was named Southeast Manitoulin Lions Club Citizen of the Year in 2007.

Michael’s Bay Historical Society president Ed Sagle recalled a recent phone conversation he had with Ms. McLennan. “I called her to tell her that we had got the property (the Michael’s Bay townsite, a goal Ms. McLennan had pursued along with Mr. Sagle for several years),” he said. “She was very excited. I was just saying to my wife that we should go and visit her at the cottage. She is going to be well-missed, she was a smart lady and she knew everybody.”

No idle boast that. Assiginack Mayor Dave Ham recalled working diligently to put together opening ceremonies for the then new Manitoulin East Municipal Airport.

“I had plenty of lead time and I had been pulling my hair out trying to get some exhibition that would draw people to the airport,” he said. “Me and Bill Ferguson were given the job, but we couldn’t find a soul that would really be a draw.”

A casual conversation with Ms. McLennan, a huge supporter of the airport (“We should have had this years ago,” she said at the time), led to her chastising Mayor Ham.

Jean McLennan was famed for working the phones. She knew the secret power of picking up the phone, and how to ensure people answered.

“She yelled in my ear, ‘David, don’t you remember Mr. Connors?’,” recalled Mayor Ham. “I told her “no, I don’t think so.’ She said ‘you silly bugger, John Connors, you used to hang around with him’.”

Mayor Ham said at that point he did remember his friend. “We used to get into all sorts of things,” he said. But he was still puzzled. “‘Don’t you know that he is the head of (US) Strategic Air Command?’ she said. Not only did she know that, she even had his telephone number,” laughed Mayor Ham. “She said ‘I keep in touch with all of my customers’.”

When Mayor Ham called his old friend, he was delighted to hear from him. “He told me, ‘Jean called me just last week.’ In short order, arrangements was made and the opening crowd of 2,500 people at the airport were treated to the sight of overflying B-52 strategic bombers and massive C-130 transports, and squadrons of jets providing fly-pasts.

“Bill Ferguson was just flabbergasted,” recalled Mayor Ham. “Jim Marchbank (founder of Sudbury’s Science North) was at the opening and he asked me ‘Dave, how did you get all these aircraft in here?’ I told him, ‘It’s not what you know, but who you know’,” laughed Mayor Ham. Turns out he was very lucky to know Jean McLennan.

“She was a tremendous person in the community,” said Mayor Ham. “She was involved in anything and everything. She will be missed.”

Dave Smith on the occasion of a dedication of a bench in her honour at the Assiginack Museum: “Whenever I made a motion, I could always count on Jean to second it,” said Mr. Smith. “Then somebody would always raise the question ‘where will the money come from?’ but Jean would always say, ‘don’t worry, the money will be there’.”

“It was wonderful that in the 1950s, people like Jean had the foresight to decide to start collecting artifacts because at that time people were beginning to come in and buying up antiques and such,” continued Mr. Smith. “People were even throwing things into the dump, because who wanted that old clock or crock, there was something wonderful and new to replace it.” It was those collections that formed the basis of the museum’s incredibly diverse and representative collection today. “People like her and Roy Fields would go around with a wagon and get people to donate those items to the museum.”

“Jean spearheaded the movement that began in the 1950s and 60s to go to Michael’s Bay to collect the records of the different stores and businesses and ensure their survival to this day,” he said. Thanks to those efforts many of those invaluable historical records of Manitoulin’s early years have been archived and preserved in the museum’s collections.

While helping celebrate Ms. McLennan’s 100th birthday Mr. Smith recounted, “Jean was one of the founding members but she was a mere 37 when the Assiginack Museum was founded in 1955, even then, she was one of the movers and shakers of this community, and for all these years, like (granddaughter) Mel said, we all jump when we get a call from Jean.”

Mr. Smith noted the curling club, golf course, arena, museum and Knox United Church have all been projects that Ms. McLennan has had a major part in.

“I am saddened by the passing of Jean McLennan,” said Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP Carol Hughes. “She was a well-respected matriarch and passionate advocate who gained the respect of so many for her hard work and dedication to all that she undertook during her long and fruitful life. Personally I will remember Jean for the lively conversations she engaged me in, including her views around politics. My thoughts are with her family, friends and all those who were fortunate enough to have known her.”

On the occasion of the 2012 presentation of a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee medal to Ms. McLennan Ms. Hughes cited how Ms. McLennan remained involved in many community activities which have helped define her community, including still holding positions on a number of boards such as president of the Knox United Church Women. “She is not just a resident of Manitowaning, she is Manitowaning,” Ms. Hughes said.

Nephew Blaine Williamson recalled Ms. McLennan’s business acumen. “She was always there,” he said. “She taught me a lot when I was young. She was always busy doing something, whether it was some project in the community, at church, in business or behind the scenes in politics. She was a real go-getter and extremely knowledgeable about what to do and who to call to get things done.”

At the onset of her career, Ms. McLennan worked for Wagg’s Dairy in the summers, but by 1957 she had become an insurance broker working with Milt McConkey. “I bought the business in 1971 and put in a total of 40 years as a broker,” she later related to Ms. Wall. “I also worked with Larry Carr until the business was sold to Jim Bousquet in 1998.” In the ensuing years, Ms. McLennan became involved in several business enterprises in town. “We had a tourist business where the police station is now and a laundromat in town,” she told Ms. Wall. “Our daughter Jill started a ‘tiny tot’ shop next to the laundromat.” 

The Expositor has had a long and fruitful relationship with Ms. McLennan, often covering her successes and the grand openings of a project she was involved in. We are especially honoured by the thoughts she expressed on our publication on the occasion of this paper’s 140th anniversary.

Vital to the last, Jean McLennan was known to all as a centenarian to be reckoned with.

“The paper has done a wonderful job of (covering) all the activities on Manitoulin,” Ms. McLennan was quoted in that year’s volume change story. “It gives you all the news that’s going on that you would never know any other way.”

“There is no part of my life I would change if I could go back in time,” said Ms. McLennan on her 100th birthday. “I was truly blessed and have retained my health. The things I did were done because they needed to be done to help the community,” she said. “I was brought up by both parents to help others and to help the church.”

One of Ms. McLennan’s later life’s passions was focused on the refurbishment of the Norisle, another project she shared with Mayor Ham. 

Jean McLennan was the very epitome of the phrase “a life well lived.” She will be missed by her family and friends, but also by a community that has been incredibly enriched by her presence. Her mark lies indelibly upon the face of Manitoulin and we are all the more handsome for her tireless efforts.

Ms. Carr spoke for many when she referred to her grandmother as her inspiration and role model. “She was a one in a million that never seen an obstacle too big, always getting things done—one that few could ever say no to. I hope that in the memory of her legacy that everyone will do something for a neighbour or a stranger with no expectations of anything in return. Do something for your community to make it a better place to live, and always remember to never give up on your dreams because with determination and drive, anything is possible.”