When Jean Cowper stands up on Tuesday, May 11 to receive the W.H. Little Award as Barrie Citizen of the Year, her friends will no doubt cheer. The folks she volunteers with at the Legion will be busy serving the sandwiches that Jean so often helps them make. Her kids and grandkids will smile.
After 38 years of sturdy volunteer work on behalf of Beavers, Cubs and Boy Scouts, countless camping trip preparations, thousands of meetings led as Akela (leader) for 1st Allandale Troops, hundreds of meetings to organize, negotiate, reward, recognize, challenge, and structure activities for Lord Baden Powell’s ‘boys’, this 72 year old woman continues to outperform many half her age.
She’s buttered thousands of slices of bread for sandwiches, organized reunions, executive meetings, campouts, and honours & awards ceremonies. She’s coordinated and trained scout leaders and picked up the mantle again and again herself.
Behind all this, however, is a story of sinew and courage and optimism and character that has to be part of why Jean Cowper deserves our applause.
An ordinary hero.
An ordinary 26 year old, married just after VE day to an orphaned soldier from eastern Canada.
An ordinary young woman, with four children born in six years, her British spunk tackling her new Canadian life and its rural Quebec ‘woodstove’ for making the tea.
An ordinary young mother who answered the door to a chaplain in 1952 to hear that her sailor husband had slipped from a deck, been wedged between two ships and was in a full body cast in a Washington, DC hospital, a quadraplegic for life.
And from that point, Jean Cowper ceases to be ordinary. Ignoring medical suggestions of a veterans hospital for her 28 year old husband, she brought him home to Allen’s Corners, QC, a village near Ormstown, in what was then an English speaking part of the province. Grief? A private thing for Jean Cowper who dug deep into her reserves to find the positive in what was to be a long life of service.
As we talked this week, I had in front of me Wayne Morrison’s glowing nomination of Jean to be the recipient among a host of worthy people whose contributions have bettered Barrie for more than half a century. Citizen of the Year.
Jean laughs as she shares the reaction of her grandchildren (ages 10 to 22) when they heard of her win. “Can they DO that?” asked one granddaughter. In fact, Jean says it is her laughter that’s carried her through so much of the struggle from 1952 to 1986 when her husband, Peter, passed away.
“I said, ‘I’ll look after him,’” she says of her response to the veterans hospital suggestion. And what got us through was my sense of humour. We didn’t sit around, sad, and say ‘why me?’ At least he could talk and think and we had had our children… it could have been much worse.”
But in 1952 there had been no national year for the physically disabled and wheelchair ramps and the word ‘accessibility’ wasn’t even in the dictionary. Dinner out was a true struggle and restauranteurs were not welcoming. There were no personal support workers, no motorized wheelchairs, and little social life.
But Jean’s pragmatic… “I learned to do things I never would have tackled.” For instance, do you know that when you’re building ramps it’s a one inch rise for every foot of distance? Do you know how far you can make a veteran’s pension stretch when you’re completely responsible for a household of six? When Jean’s ailing mother came to share their home, Jean’s willingness stretched to embrace another responsibility.
“My volunteer work with Beavers, Cubs and Scouts was my sanity, in many ways,” she says. “I’d set things up so I could be away for a few hours at a time. When the kids went camping with Scouts, I’d help them set up and then go back home. I had great leaders.”
The family moved to Simcoe in the early 70’s and then Jean brought her husband and mother to Barrie in 1986 to be near her daughter, Susan. Husband Peter passed away in 1986 and Jean’s centenarian mother followed in 1989. The past 15 years have belonged to Jean. “It was absolutely thrilling in the 90’s when someone would call and ask if I wanted to go out for lunch. Yes! Yes! Yes!”
And then Jean joined the Legion, adding more responsibility, including second vice president and president to her long list of caring community endeavours. In fact, as I attended my friend Kory’s grandmother’s funeral Wednesday afternoon, there was Barrie’s newest Citizen of the Year, serving sandwiches at the post funeral reception.
38 years in the Scouting movement. 14 years with the Legion.
Jean remembers 1966 when she put her hand on the flag and solemnly made this commitment:
On my honour
To do my best, To do my duty
To God and the Queen
To help other people at all times
and to carry out the Scout law.
“It’s what I’ve tried to do,” she says simply.
An ordinary woman?