Wednesday, March 24, 2010

An inspiring story

I just wanted everyone to be able to read this story of my great-aunt Jean. This was an article published in the "Lanark Era", while I was overseas. It's a bit long, but I think most of my teacher friends will really appreciate this amazing woman and her wonderful story.
On February 26th. 2010, Jean Emily McLellan will celebrate her 100th birthday, but you would never guess it by looking at her. Her tiny yet sprightly frame is outdone only by her quick, sharp mind which clearly recalls a lifetime of memories as a devoted teacher.

She was born in 1910 to John & Jennie Leslie at their home in the tiny Eastern Ontario Village of Lanark. Like all the town's children, Jean's education revolved around the imposing two story stone schoolhouse on Princess Street, which she attended from grade one through twelve. Upon graduation, she and 4 other girls from the Lanark school made a bold journey to North Bay. There they joined nearly 150 other hopefuls, mostly female, at a teacher's college known as The Normal School. The 5 young ladies lodged together in a local North Bay boarding house and on September 18th 1928 set off for their first day of classes.

[This is a photo from my family album of aunt Jean and a friend being taken by horse and buggy to Carleton Place to get the train back to North Bay after Christmas break.]

Students were divided into groups and Jean was one of 25 young ladies in Group 3 which apparently achieved a position of honour that year. Reporting in the North Bay Normal School Graduation Yearbook of 1928 - 29, Miss Annie Hogg and Miss Humphries wrote this about their group's success : "Third in number, but first always in ability ! No, we're not boasting; we're merely stating fact."

When 19 year old graduate, Miss Jean Leslie returned to Lanark, she immediately took up a position at the McVeigh School in Bathurst Township. What a change it must have been from her days of friendship and camaraderie at the Normal School to the remote one room schoolhouse where she suddenly found herself teaching all grades from 1 to 8. There is no doubt however, of her fond memories. She recalled her first years as a teacher as she spoke proudly of one particular student who more than 80 years later, still stands out in her mind.

"She was a quiet girl," remembers Jean. "She would have been 11 or 12 then. I taught there for 2 years and had her for grades 7 & 8 and she passed her high school entrance exam with honours. Olive Sergeant was her name," adds Jean, "and she was very studious, but that's what country students were like. They were serious about their studies."

Jean too, must have been a very serious young woman. At a salary of only $700 per year and while boarding with a local family, by 1930 she had managed to save enough to purchase her first car for the whopping sum of $125.00. As there was no public transport in such remote locations and while even her elderly landlords had none of their own, Jean's used car must have been a God-send to all.

Miss Leslie was happy teaching and she liked the country schools. To her, they were filled with the most agreeable and eager of students. It seemed no time before she had completed the 4 years of on the job experience needed to re-enter the Normal School. There she would complete the one additional year of instruction which Ontario required to earn the coveted Permanent Teaching Certificate. So in 1934, she tendered her resignation, eagerly planning her return to North Bay. Imagine the shock when the Premier of Ontario suddenly changed the rules. The second year requirement was out and summer school upgrades replaced the Normal School. This was a disaster for Jean as she had already resigned her position and no summer school was readily available to her.

It was 1935 and Jean, who was no quitter, took what was available; a position at the Union School in a very remote location known as Wilson Post Office, but something else was in the works and his name was Malcom McLellan. He had courted her since her return from North Bay and he was as devoted to her as he was to his beloved farming. In those days married women were not employable as teachers. The Victorian era did not easily relinquish its grip and it was widely accepted that the eventuality of pregnancy excluded married women from the profession. Mac convinced Jean to accept a post at the Bathurst Line schoolhouse outside of McDonalds Corners, to be closer to him. The young couple looked forward to a spring wedding.

May the first, fell on a Friday in 1936 and Jean rushed to clean up the classroom and dismiss her students early. Then she and Mac headed for the little hamlet of Queensborough, got lost on the way and were late appearing before Jean's uncle, the Reverend Lowrie. Nevertheless, Jean Emily Leslie and Malcom McLellan were married. They honeymooned one night in Peterborough and a second in Kingston, but Mrs. Malcom McLellan was back in her classroom bright and early Monday morning. She finished the school year before leaving to begin her married life.

The following year Jean gave birth to their first son, Douglas, at the couple's home in McDonalds Corners and in 1939 a second son, Gordon arrived. The war years took Mac to South Porcupine, Ontario where he worked in the mines, but his love of farming brought him back to the Lanark area where he purchased the family a 100 acre beef and dairy farm. In the same year, because of a teacher's shortage, Jean was enticed to return to teaching for the princely sum of $1200 per annum. Once again she found herself, mistress of a one room schoolhouse. This time it was in the tiny village of Watson's Corners and there she stayed until their first daughter Normalyn was born on May 12, 1949. Once again her career was interrupted.

It was 1961 when Mrs. Neilson, secretary of the Lanark Township School Board visited the McLellan farm. The young man they'd hired for the school in Ferguson's Falls, was incapable of handling his students. As matters were deteriorating rapidly, Mrs. Neilson's pleading finally persuaded Jean to take up the challenge.

" At first, restoring order was difficult," she recalled ruefully, " I had been out of teaching for some time. But," she brightened, "I managed to get that school back on track." Mrs. McLellan was once again in charge and the School Board was glad of it.

Over the next 11 years she would find herself moved from Fergusons Falls to Hopetown and finally, after the government mandated closing of most rural schools, Jean, along with many other teachers was moved into the village of Lanark where she remained until retiring in 1974. However, though Jean retired from teaching, she remained an enthusiastic member of a local teacher's group.

Her first foray into the political realm of the profession was in 1961 when she began sitting in on the very active Carleton Place & Almonte Women's Teacher's Association; serving on multiple committees as well as attending the annual general meetings in Toronto. Jean recalled how the late 50's saw increasing numbers of men migrating into the teaching profession and how sexism reared its ugly head over promotions and pay, adding that, at the time, men and women maintained separate associations whose views were incompatible. The government however, was pushing hard for them to unite. In 1974, Jean vividly remembered that then, Inspector George Nobes, asked her to take up the position as secretary of the Carleton Place Association and attend meetings in Renfrew, where he hoped to broker agreement between the two groups. According to Jean, the negotiations were quite "rough" and lasted for 2 years. Unfortunately, in the end no agreement on equality was reached. That would not come until a few years later.

Retirement did nothing to slow Jean's momentum and while she continued to attend annual meetings, she added The Retired Teacher's Association Goodwill Program to her resume and enjoyed the many visits she paid to retired teachers throughout the area. It quickly became a regular part of her routine.

Incredibly, it was not until Jean entered her 90's that hip surgery and the inability to drive, made it impossible to continue her visits, but, if you expect to find Jean twiddling her thumbs in an old rocker somewhere, you are woefully mistaken. As the mother of three, the grandmother of 5 and great grandmother of 9, she enjoys an active family life. She maintains her own apartment during the winter
months but as soon as her cottage on Dalhousie Lake is open, Jean moves in and readies for the many visitors, family and friends, who drop in on her throughout the summer season.

There is nothing about this centenarian which belies her age. Her life spans a century, but her career is a living account of the teaching profession as it transitioned from its pioneering past to what we know it as today. Truly, Jean Emily (Leslie) McLellan is a most remarkable woman.

Happy Birthday Jean and many many more.

[Written by Sue Reid for The Lanark Era.]

By all accounts Aunt Jean, at 100 years of age is still doing very well, living in her apartment in Perth, and looking forward to another summer at Dalhousie Lake.


  1. You are right...I loved reading EVERY word. I feel as though I know her. She is what we refer to as a 'good woman'. Thank you, Les!!

  2. Ma Soeur,
    What an amazing story of a wonderful lady. She is a true pioneer and when I think back about the teaching profession over the years, it is interesting to discover that your aunt helped to institute many positive changes. It is understandable why she is so highly respected by her family, community, and the teaching profession. I'm off to a happy half-day in the classroom, and I shall think of your great Aunt Jean. Sixteen to 18 students in grades one and two will be an easy assignment compared to the challenges your aunt faced while teaching eight grades in one room. Thank you for an uplifting start to the day!

  3. What a wonderful story. Thank-you for letting us into a bit of your family history.

  4. A remarkable woman, and an extraordinary life. Think of the challenges of teaching in those early days! Many thanks for sharing the adventures of your great-aunt Jean.


  5. WOW, you really do have longevity in your blood lines. You'll be visiting me at the "home for retired painters/upholsters and furniture refinishers. Evelyn will be the manager.

  6. What a wonderful story! Thanks for sharing the life of someone so special in your family!