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Wednesday May 26, 2010

Co-founder of Toronto's Tarragon Theatre had a social conscience that benefited many

She later worked as a reporter and producer for the CBC and for various philanthropic causes

For decades, artists, theatre workers and a group of seemingly unconnected Toronto residents would regularly discover sums of money had been deposited in their bank accounts by an anonymous benefactor. The money, a few thousand dollars that would show up every month unannounced and unsolicited, came from the mysteriously named CJ Foundation.

This month, in the weeks following the death of journalist, theatre founder and late-life organic farmer Jane Glassco on April 28 at the age of 71, members of her family discovered that she had been secretly supporting many of their friends and acquaintances for years, with money she had secretly transferred from a bank account marked with initials chosen to describe herself as "Crazy Jane."

"We found out from her accountant," said her daughter, Briony Glassco. "Before she died, people would be saying, 'I don't know why I'm getting three thousand dollars in my account every month,' and she would say, 'Wow, I don't know either.'"

This generosity of spirit was well cultivated by Ms. Glassco, who was born Jane Lockhart Gordon on March 11, 1939. Her life, like her private donations, was delivered with similar emphasis on drama, joy, humour and good work.

She was the daughter of Walter Gordon, a former Liberal finance minister and a major influence behind the family accounting firm Clarkson Gordon & Co.

Her mother, Elizabeth, was a sculptress and artist, and so Glassco inherited a fierce sense of cultural curiosity along with proud nationalism and the financial security that would facilitate her generosity. One of three children, she was brought up in Toronto, but sent to boarding school as a child, where she developed a reputation as a free spirit.

Her daughter says she was kicked out of several schools before becoming Head Girl at the elite girl's school Havergal College. Her crimes ranged from staying out late and smoking behind the bike shed, to requesting help for a girl who was clearly pregnant.

After attending UBC, she studied broadcast journalism at Ryerson Polytechnic in Toronto, where she broke a front page story about Scarborough housing developments built knowingly over an abandoned nuclear waste dump.

Jane met her future husband, Bill Glassco, when he started dating her older sister.

The couple's first son, Benjamin, died when he was 11/2 in a backyard pool accident at Bill's parents, while the couple was at a wedding. After having two more children, Briony and Rufus, the couple adopted a 12-year-old boy named Daniel, who would have been the same age as their beloved Benji.

Ms. Glassco believed her children should be independent from an early age, and Briony remembers that anyone who got sick was instructed to call the doctor and make an appointment, even if they were only 4 at the time.

Through their mother, the children were exposed to social justice, politics and culture, taken to protest marches and whisked away to New York City, where they lived for two years.

While other Rosedale moms were organizing gala dinners, Ms. Glassco volunteered one evening a week manning a suicide hotline.

Other things set her apart, too. Although she was a community-minded person, Briony says her mother was addicted to illegal parking and had kept her own mother's handicap parking pass for 10 years after her death.

"She was incredibly subversive and she just liked breaking the rules. She would pay her tickets but she had a lot of points off her licence."

In 1971, she helped her husband found the Tarragon Theatre, named for the couple's favourite cooking spice.

Mallory Gilbert, Tarragon's general manager, said that after co-founding the theatre in 1971, Glassco worked as its publicist for five years. It was during this time that she discovered the concept of "pay-what-you-can" in San Francisco theatres, and insisted that it be adopted by the Tarragon.

"As a result, we had line-ups every Sunday," she said.

Glassco's husband was a major force in the promotion of Canadian theatre and local playwrights, including Judith Thompson, James Reany and Michel Tremblay, and the Tarragon helped usher in a new era of drama. The couple split in 1976, but the two reconnected toward the end of Bill's life, and friends say they were able to appreciate the legacy they shared in their children and the Tarragon before his death in 2004.

After working at the theatre, Glassco dedicated herself to journalism. Her friends say she blossomed at the CBC, where she worked as an investigative reporter and producer for Marketplace and the children's science show Wonderstruck. She produced a documentary series for the broadcaster called Our Stories, a critically acclaimed series of half-hour biographies of Canadians from a variety of backgrounds.

In the 1980s, her friend Barry Stuart introduced her to Yukon, where she met "the love of her life" - Canada's aboriginal people. She would visit the north frequently, drawn by her intense connection to the land and the lack of artifice among its residents.

Through her family's Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation, she brought awareness of aboriginal communities, ideas and projects from the North to the attention of Toronto's philanthropic community. In her honour, the foundation recently introduced the Jane Glassco Arctic Fellowships, for young northerners interested in public-policy issues.

Glassco was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, in July 2009. She quickly organized a trip for her children and beloved grandchildren to Yukon, and the group visited together last September.

In the last few years of her life, she dedicated herself to organic farming at her family property near Schomberg, Ont., where she lived during the agricultural season. She thrilled in the annual cycle, and hosted large gatherings of family, immediate and extended.

She worked to have the farm certified as organic and spent eight years negotiating a conservation easement that would permanently protect the land. In 2007, she received the Charles Sauriol Environmental Award from Robert Kennedy Jr., in recognition of the conservation gift to the people of Ontario.

One regular guest at the farm was friend Diane Martin, who suffers from multiple sclerosis. When the pair hugged, they would sway because of their poor balance, and joke that they were going to knock each other down. At the farm one weekend, Glassco asked her friend why, if their diseases were different, they both walked like drunkards.

"I raised the glass of red wine I was working on and said, 'Because we are!' said Martin. "And she cackled and raised her glass of whisky and said, 'Cheers!'"

Andrew Ignatieff, who eulogized his close friend at a memorial service, said she was an extraordinary individual who was "extravagant in her joy in living."

"She was one of the great conversationalists," he said. "When you talked to her, she just locked you in her eyesight and didn't let you go and held you up and sustained you, and provoked you and challenged you and wondered at what you were telling her."

She was a fierce nationalist and environmentalist, but hated Canadian geese and beavers, he said, which she saw as undeserving symbols of her beautiful country.

When she wasn't at her farm, Glassco lived in a 1920s apartment complex at Lowther and Spadina in Toronto. She had painted the walls in raspberry and lime green and her daughter said the decor set off a chain-reaction in the building, as other residents realized they did not have to keep their walls pristine white.

"Now you walk by the building and every apartment has colour in it."

Her son, Rufus, said his mother inspired him to make a priority of public service and to follow in her footsteps to become a journalist and filmmaker.

"She treated everyone the same, it didn't matter who you were," he said. "She taught me that there's always interesting people out there, you just have to take that first step to meet them."

Glassco passed away peacefully at her beloved farm, surrounded by friends and family. After her death, they discussed their final moments with her and discovered that she had connected with each of them in a special way.

Ignatieff said that it is this unique and unwavering spirit that he will remember about his friend. When she was diagnosed with ALS, he reminded her of the CBC contest that delivered the concept of being "as Canadian as possible under the circumstances."

"I said I would like her to remain as Jane Glassco as possible under the circumstances," he said. "And that's the way she was, right up to the end."

She leaves Dan, Briony and Rufus Glassco, and their spouses, Karen Hunter, Clive Walton and Dinora Glassco, and her grandchildren, Tyler, Max, Zoe, Kyra, Sebastian and Benjamin.

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