My muse. A strong, independent woman. 101 years old. An RCAF veteran. A community volunteer. She was 101 years old and regularly went ice skating. She still drove. She had a dry and witty sense of humour that was sharp, and it never failed to amaze me how effortlessly she could insert quick comedy into a conversation. Jeanne was an absolute inspiration. And she still had swagger when she walked…
I’ve known Jeanne for 36 years. She was an elderly woman for the entire time I’ve known her, and with more energy than most people in their 20’s. I lost both of my grandmother’s at a young age, so Jeanne became like a surrogate grandmother to my sisters and me. And probably countless others. She was a ray of sunshine in a lot of people’s lives.
Back in 2016, while living in Florence, Italy, I called Jeanne to say “hello” and to see how she was doing. She was thrilled to have received a call from Europe and we made plans to have lunch when I returned to Toronto.
During our lunch, I updated Jeanne on my travels and professional endeavors, and towards the end of our meal Jeanne firmly stated, almost with an air of insistence, “Well I hope I live long enough to see your name on a billboard.” A great idea for when the time was right. After lunch, while walking to the car, Jeanne happily exclaimed, “Wow! To think, I got to go out with a guy who drives a Lincoln!” She was well into her late 90’s and still got excited for little things such as that. One of the many reasons we love Jeanne.
And so it is with a heavy heart, that I announce here, that my dear friend Jeanne Hamel quietly passed away in Scarborough, on Monday September 27th 2021, exactly one week before the billboard she inspired was set to go up. Although she didn’t get to see my name on the billboard, she knew it was in the works and was completely thrilled at the thought of it finally happening. We had press opportunities planned, with the two of us smiling in front of the billboard, and during a discussion about it over a recent dinner outing, she joked, “I probably won’t be able to see the darn thing anyway.”
I’m going to miss her tremendously but I know for sure that Jeanne’s legacy will continue to have a lasting impact on people for many years to come. Next time you wear red, think of Jeanne, it was her favourite colour.
Love and light. The future is bright…
Many people have walked with Jeanne, many have yet to follow. Her vitality attracted and inspired people to join her in her quest for a life that continues to make a difference for others. Her footsteps brought her to West Hill, Scarborough where she was an active member of the community for over forty years.
Her dream to attend the Ontario agriculture college in Guelph to be trained as a vet was not to be. “I did as I was told,” she said, and then took her first, part-time, difficult job working in the kitchen of a nursing home. Her claim to fame in that kitchen was that she made better porridge than the cook.
Jeanne found herself on new pathways during the war, as a member of the RCAF from 1942 to 1945. By train and plane, she travelled across Canada from Ottawa to Victoria to interview and recruit 60 young women for the precision squad. The war brought tragedy to Jeanne’s family when her older brother Melvin was killed in plane crash in Sierra Leone in 1942. It was also during the war that she met her husband, Will. They were married in 1943 and had a delightful baby Norah, born in 1952.
The church is always played a prominent part in Jeanne’s life. At the age of 16, she join the choir and her local church. Jeanne’s grandmother had been a soloist at a church in Montreal. Her father was a trained musician. Jeanne recalls her dad heading out for concerts and gigs to share his talent. And she added her own voice to the choir at West Hill United Church.
Jeanne was often ahead of her time, especially in areas of justice. At a previous church, she had different views from the minister whom she described as someone who distinguished himself as ‘anti-gay.’ She found herself aligning with open thinking people and made the comment, “Some people are just too old in their thinking,” then chuckled,” that sounds a bit odd coming from me.”
Everyone marvelled at Jeanne‘s physical activities. She loved to hike and enjoy the outdoors. It is not surprising to learn that she was one of the first hikers on the Bruce Trail when it opened in 1960. Swimming was also favorite, ongoing pastime. Jeanne and Norah both became swimming instructors. For over 30 years Jeanne volunteered as an instructor for persons with developmental challenges who are enrolled in the Crest Club at the Porter Pool at the Scarborough Parks and Recreation Facility.
Regular skating kept Jean fit as a fiddle. One story talks of a friend having a conversation with Jeanne after her skate. Jeanne excused herself from the conversation to skate over to the maintenance workers to tell them what a fine job they were doing to maintain the surface of the ice. Their nods and smiles were all that was needed to show that a compliment from Jeanne had made their day.
Jeanne also enjoyed her independence so she wheels her van onto the streets to drive to church and to do her errands. On a Sunday following church, she was often there with an open car door to drive others home. Caring for people was a gift that Jean continued to give others including the Toronto community living group, next-door to West Hill United Church. One resident there had adopted Jean as a member of his family. She was there for all his special occasions. These friends looked forward to Jean‘s weekly visits just as she looked forward to visiting and sharing her goodness with them.
Time for fun and entertainment was also important to Jeanne. At dinner parties and special occasions, Jeanne could be found mixing and mingling with guests, making everyone feel welcome. Jeanne may not have a TV but she keeps up with current affairs as a lifelong subscriber of The Toronto Star which, as it happened, published a story about how she had turned in the gun that her father had used in the first world war. During an amnesty program in 2008, she joked with the two uniform police officers who had come to retrieve it by commenting, “Let me see where I put the body.” According to The Star, she remembered that the gun had been in a steel box in the corner of her dining room. “I haven’t looked at this for a year, “she said with a giggle. She pulled out a black leather holster that held a Lugar stamped 1916. She surrendered the firearm for a camera, which was later stolen by a stranger whom she had invited into the church to get out of the cold. She retold the story saying, “He probably needed the camera more than I did.“
Jeanne’s many acts of kindness are concrete examples of how she continued to use her power to defy age barriers and help people within the community from all walks of life. The future promises to be exciting adventurous and perhaps a little scary. Fortunately, we have Jeanne’s insights to help us along as together we create new footsteps for others to follow.
Offered as wisdom for the journey.
-Adapted from "Happy 100th Birthday", by Adele and Don Francis
In loving memory of Jeanne Hamel
June 17, 1920 – September 27, 2021