Having a natural gift of athletic ability served Jan well throughout the years. Jan was a star athlete in high school, playing most sports and excelling in particular at basketball and volleyball. Jan became the team captain of almost every team from grade 9 through 13. In grade 12, Jan was chosen to attend the Ontario Athletic Leadership Camp – an honour given to only one girl per high school in Ontario and that student had to excel in three areas – academic ability, athletic ability and leadership ability.
Jan harnessed this gift into a life-long profession, where she impacted many students over her teaching career at Centre Wellington District High School (CWDHS) in Fergus and Guelph Collegiate Vocational Institute (GCVI), where she was head of the Women’s Physical Education Department.
Janet MacKenzie was born in Hamilton on July 26th, 1947 to Hazel and Robert Isbister Jr. Robert was a professional football player, playing for both the Hamilton Ti-Cats and Toronto Argonauts. He was an all-star and won the Grey Cup twice while playing for the Argos. Janet was a twin to Susan, and older Sister Betty rounded out the Isbister family.
As a child, Jan was a real tomboy and some of her sisters’ most vivid memories are of her being fearless to her own detriment. She ate so much dirt and swallowed so many worms that her mother called the doctor to make sure it wouldn’t kill her.
When Jan was about 7 years old, she took her Dad’s belt top shimmy up a tree only to slide back down and get her leg wedged between two very large tree branches. Every kid in the neighbourhood came to help Jan, yanking and pulling on her leg as it became more and more swollen. Eventually all the mothers in the neighbourhood arrived- with oil and butter trying to loosen her leg but to no avail. Finally the Fire Department was called to come to the rescue.
Jan graduated from The University of Western Ontario in 1968 with a degree in English Literature and The University of Toronto in 1972 with a Bachelor of Education, becoming qualified as a teacher of Physical Education and English. After University, Jan spent time with her friend Jennifer Mills, sharing Jan’s musical talents by ‘busking’ in the ‘tubes’ of London, England.
Jan married Jim MacKenzie, a fellow teacher and lifelong soul mate in 1977. They went to Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park for their honeymoon. Jim had two children at the time and explained that “Jan took on Kristi and Kari at the ages of 1½ and 4 when she was only 26 years old and loved them as her own, just as she loved Rob and Megan a few years later.”
Kristi and Kari reflected that having Jan become their mother was the best thing that ever happened to them, as she put her heart and soul into their lives. Kristi and Kari shared that Jan is the very essence of what a mother should be, and most importantly, their mother to their very core.
Raising the family of four children on a farm in Puslinch became Jan’s passion and source of greatest enjoyment. Any adversity faced by Jan exemplified her strength of character. Jim got into a serious car accident while on his way to a basketball tournament. Jim fractured his pelvis, clavicle and skull and he still has no recollection of anything between December 1973 and February 1974.
What he does know is that during that time, Jan handled everything. She got the kids to the baby sitter and school, fed the horses, taught school, visited Jim twice a day in the hospital, made cookies for Santa, picked up a pony for Kristi, all while never complaining and keeping a smile on her face.
“I can’t remember Jan ever getting angry at me, even once in 40 years,” shared Jim. “The fact that we had a wonderful relationship was primarily due to her wonderful, uplifting and easy going personality.”
Jan was known for her love of canoeing, running, horseback riding, reading, writing, and playing guitar and piano. Rob shared that his mother “had a consistent desire to put others before herself, which is what made her unique. She was warm, caring, selfless and passionate about her family, music and nature.”
When Rob was in grade 10, he found her guitar buried in the basement. Jan played and sang a beautiful folk song to him, finger picking every note perfectly. “I sat there, stunned, as I discovered another one of my mother’s talents.” Rob said. “When the song was over, I asked who it was by. She responded that she wrote it herself while travelling in Europe many years ago. It was at that moment that I realized that no matter how much I practiced guitar, I would never be as cool as my mom.”
Once Jan retired from teaching, she embraced her additional free time doing things she loved, such as reading, filling the house with the sound of her beautiful piano playing, and gardening. She also took up metal work artistry. “It brings me joy to know that she took advantage of her retirement while she was able” Rob shared.
Jan’s penmanship started to change in 2002 and the family suspected some kind of neurological problem. When she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, it became clear that a water access cottage didn’t make a lot of sense. So Jim and Jan sold the cottage and bought a home on the water in Orillia.
Unfortunately, Jan’s diagnosis was changed to Multiple System Atrophy (MSA), a degenerative neurological disorder, two weeks after moving in. Despite all of these challenges, Jan remained positive and mentally sharp until the end. The love she and her family had for each other allowed them to remain strong and get through the challenges that the disorder brought.
The average life span with MSA is 7 – 8 years, but Jan lived on for 12 years. “I am certain it was a result of exceptional care but I’m biased” Jim explains. “She maintained her uplifting personality and sweet sense of humour right up until her last week.”
Janet passed away at age of 67 on Monday, November 10th, in the presence of her family at Orillia Soldier’s Memorial Hospital. “Although I have prematurely lost my sweetheart,” Jim shared, “I know that I am fortunate to have spent 40 years with the most remarkable woman I have ever met.”
At the memorial service, Megan shared the following about her mother:
I will always remember falling asleep to the sound of you playing piano.
I will always remember every time I gave you a kiss, you would smile and whisper back “soft lips”.
I will always remember waking up in the morning to you scratching my back.
I will always remember when I was little and not feeling well, you took such good care of me that sick days were actually good days!
I will always remember our love for Muskoka, being near the water, and our morning paddles on a lake of glass.
I will always remember you encouraging me to be an artist.
Although you were here for only half of my life, I received enough love from you to last all my life.
What an honour it was to speak to Janet’s loving family members. Thinking of the MacKenzie family this holiday season. http://www.guelphmercury.com/news-story/5228740-janet-mackenzie-athlete-teacher-cool-mom/