A humble civil servant with an enormous agenda to do right!

In 1995 I wrote my first proposal to deliver the federal government’s self employment assistance program in this region. I had some questions and as I worked on my document I called the person named as contact in the newspaper ad. I got a soft voice, a bit clipped at the edges of her words, friendly and matter-of-fact.

When I ‘won’ that contract, I got to work with Marlene McKeown, work in the real sense of the word. This was no 9 to 4 civil servant! What I met was a steel wall with a huge heart. Marlene knew what mattered. She looked at all the many and myriad and often senseless rules created by government and she knew how to blend them with reality. She also knew about trust. And respect.

We worked together until her husband’s move from self employment to teaching took them to Bahamas. They moved there so Ron could ‘try out’ teaching before making the commitment to school. Marlene took a year’s leave of absence and went with Ron to experience a different culture. She took her unassuming nature with her and brought back interesting observations.

In those days, Marlene attended program information sessions to answer questions from unemployed people who were looking to create their own job. She listened, answered and explained. She didn’t suffer fools or rude people.

When new candidates were selected, she celebrated with them as they signed their agreements to follow government rules. She could see the sense behind a couple of my own ‘agreements’ and embraced them into the paperwork.

She loved big cars. She loved her home in Innisfil Township. She loved her boys and was unfailingly supportive for their greater good.  In fact, we had a group of business candidates ready to sign their contracts on a specific day and begin their self employment journeys. Government deadlines were tied to ei claims deadlines. Two or three of this group would have stale-dated claims and not be able to join the program to start their businesses.

Marlene suggested we sign the contracts early in the morning on a Friday instead of a Monday, to accommodate the date difficulty. Not a big deal. Except her first son was getting married that day.

I looked at her. Marlene, I said, this is your son’s wedding day. You should be at the hairdresser, and celebrating as you and Ron get ready for the wedding. You should not be in here signing contracts. Can’t we just date them for that day?

Well… yes we could.

That was Marlene.

As these businesses celebrated completion of the program, Marlene attended, outside of hours and duty but with true care and interest. She came to training sessions at night because she cared about how people were doing. And I think she appreciated my unconventional approach to delivering a government program. Most of those clients initiated by Marlene are still in business today.

Breast cancer 32 years ago. Chemo, radiation, and Marlene ploughed through it all. Proactively pulling out her hair in tufts as she faced this chemical onslaught of her body.

In between she celebrated arrivals of grandchildren, marriage of her second son, progression of Ron’s teaching career, and maintenance of sturdy friendships.

And 28 years later, four years ago, she started to feel poorly. She was commuting to Toronto for her Strategic Services Department position by then. She was a little cog in an enormous wheel. She hooked herself up to IV, hid it under bulky sweaters and went to work. She knew that her work mattered to others. She also knew her work mattered to her.

“I’ll live longer if I work,” she said. I personally believe she didn’t want to give cancer that much power to control her life.

While the self employment program moved to other government overseers, among them Marlene’s good friend, Kathy Jenkinson, Marlene and I remained in touch. And then Kathy joined us and as a trio we celebrated regularly but not often enough. We’d reminisce and update about businesses she’d been involved with and how they’re doing now, 17 years later. I wanted her to know she made a difference not only in the lives of those people, but in the economic life of this community.

By working quietly as a civil servant in an office filled with African Violets in Barrie.

Thanks, Marlene.