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A tribute to former president John O'Leary

On April 14, 2020, John Daniel O’Leary, former president of Frontier College(1990-2006) passed away.
We are deeply saddened  to lose such a generous, kind, and accomplished member of our community. John was a dedicated advocate for literacy and social justice. His contributions have been felt and recognized widely in Canada. 

Up until his passing, John continued to volunteer at our Newcomer Homework Club in Regent Park.

He shared his pride and enthusiasm with our staff and volunteers in a recent letter.

There was always a good turnout of kids and great volunteers. I'm always amazed at the
skills and goodness of the U of T and Ryerson volunteers. Fitzpatrick, the founder of Frontier College, knew what he was doing in 1899, when he first asked university students to teach and serve others. I know he would be proud to see our gang each week at Lord Dufferin.

You  are doing a terrific job in recruiting, training and supporting our Homework Club volunteers. You give them the skills and the confidence they need to be such wonderful teachers and role models for the children, parents and the adult learners.

And, of course, the children are the real stars of the show, attending faithfully and with enthusiasm and bringing their curiousity, their questions, their ideas , their laughter and their dreams.  One of my students, has her heart set on going to Ryerson and I know she was inspired by the kindness and the high intelligence of our Homework Club volunteers from that school.

Of course, we're all disappointed by the situation we all face, but the Homework Club, now marking more than 20 years, will certainly continue. I can't think of an image showing how our community has recovered more powerful than that evening to come when we will again wait eagerly in those classrooms and hear the laughter and the clatter of little feet running down the hallways as the kids arrive for their Homework Club.

Take care and see you soon,

We'll always remember John fondly and feel lucky that we've had the pleasure of working with and learning from him. John's legacy at Frontier College will always be treasured. 

We remember and pay tribute to John.

From Sarah Thompson, VP of Programs and Impact, Frontier College

"I am a junior staff person sitting in the Bradwin Room – floral wallpaper and all – with other staff and volunteers, a group of about 20 or so. There are two candidates vying for the position of President and one of them is John. His words offer us a living philosophy underlying the importance of literacy, books and stories. What I recall of those words goes something like this.
Each of us carries a story inside and it is sacred to us. We connect to the world and develop our humanity through sharing stories. The ability to read and write (understanding/communication/knowledge/skills), a love of reading and stories (curiosity/passion/empathy/pleasure) and the wherewithal to access them (JUSTICE) are all essential to an understanding of the real necessity of literacy whether written or oral. Literacy is a subtle, multidimensional, bedrock capacity of the human experience.
For a young person in passionate pursuit of a better world and a deeper understanding of how to live consciously and be of service – this was a resonant and transformative message. His message that day confirmed to me that I had found my place with the people and the mission of Frontier College."

From Sandra Huehn, Community Coordinator, Toronto, Frontier College

"John O'Leary changed the course of my life. He gave me my first real job in October 1988 at Frontier College.
John, Phil and I set up READ Canada together, Frontier College's foray into children's programming on a national level. John was inspiring, compassionate, committed and difficult. I am so grateful to him.
I will miss him." 


From Stephen Faul, President and CEO, Frontier College

"John was one of the first people to reach out to me when I became President of Frontier College. He was extremely passionate about the cause of literacy and generously shared with me stories of his time with Frontier, notably his advocacy efforts aimed at the federal government. He was a good sounding board for our strategic planning ideas and had valuable advice. He built many of our programs that continue to run today and in fact was still volunteering at a program he helped establish. I have spoken with a number of people who worked closely with John over the years and I know he will be missed." 

From Mark Stiles

"If I remember correctly, I was on the committee that interviewed John for work with Frontier College. Within the first few minutes of the interview, we all knew that John had the right values, work ethic and fervent commitment to social justice to make an outstanding contribution to the work of the Collage. And he did. Very sad to learn of his untimely death.​"

From Ken Martin, Community Coordinator, Toronto, Frontier College

"It was back in 2001 or 2002, after I had taken over managing the campus program at University of Toronto at St. George. The Organizing Team (OT) and I had scheduled an orientation session on the campus for interested volunteers. John asked to attend. A few of the OT members, John and myself were in a classroom on the campus, waiting for people to arrive for the orientation session. I think all of three people showed up. I was feeling a bit discouraged and also embarrassed at the low turnout, while the President of Frontier College was in attendance, but it didn't phase John at all. It didn't matter to him whether it was three people or 30 or 300, John was unfailingly positive and ready to share the message about literacy with whomever and however many were there. Although I was still disappointed at the poor turnout, John's positivity and generosity meant a lot to me and encouraged me to carry on. If I remember correctly, I think our next orientation session had over 40 people attend!"

From Bill Jordon

"I met John during the era of Jack Pierpoint .Together,they were a thoughtful,action filled team which later resonated on the Board,and in the workplace. An irreplaceable steady hand in the Frontier College wheelhouse whose vision remains with us."

From Julienne Tardif, Office and Technology Coordinator, Frontier College

Working with John Daniel O’Leary over many years, his passion for literacy and education always touched me very deeply.  He was like no one else I knew, a wonderful and inspirational speaker always ready to open up a new literacy frontier.  He had the gift to really connect with people, young and old, rich or poor.  Although I felt saddened by his sudden passing, his life was well-lived, and I will always remember him with great fondness.  I send my deepest condolences to John Daniel’s family at this time."

From Sara King, former Frontier College volunteer

"I was so saddened to hear of John's passing and send my deepest sympathy to his family and friends. I can't imagine how difficult this must be, especially at this challenging time. John made a difference to so many people - his passion for and dedication to literacy and education were inspiring. He will be remembered so fondly by those of us who were lucky to have known him.

I volunteered with Frontier College/Queen's Students for Literacy in the late 90s while I was an undergraduate student. John frequently came to visit our group in Kingston and was such a wonderful mentor to all of us. He was kind, compassionate, dedicated, and really funny. He always remembered everyone's name and took the time to learn (and remember) something about each member of our team - he shared our inside jokes and always made a point to have meaningful individual conversations with each member of our executive. When I moved back to Toronto in 2006 after completing 5 years of graduate school in Halifax, I began volunteering with the Frontier College homework club in Regent Park. John dropped by to the training that fall, as it was to be his last as Director. I was so pleasantly surprised that he remembered me and took the time to chat after so many years. He was just a really really nice guy and made a lasting impact on a lot of people. I am so glad I had the opportunity to cross paths with him."


From Svend Robinson

"John was a passionate and dedicated literacy advocate, one of the most effective that I met during my many years as federal MP."

From Alice Zhou, former Frontier College staff member

"It was such a shock to learn of John’s passing. My sincere and deepest condolences to John’s family. Just about a month ago when almost everybody started to work from home, we were planning to get together to celebrate once the current situation improves! I felt so lucky to have worked for John who devoted his life for literacy and who was such an inspiration for all. I am also glad that we were able to stay connected for all these years after the college. I have enjoyed all the conversations we’ve had on politics, history, books etc. at the Fran’s Restaurant, John’s favourite place to meet, eat and chat! I will miss you so much John! May you rest in peace!"

From Rosita Bacchus, Literacy Program Coordinator, Toronto, Frontier College

"John was leader who cared about people and this was reflected in the manner in which he interacted with staff and the people he came in contact with. He was an eloquent speaker, well read, and devoted to advocating for literacy. I remember hims visiting the programs, participating in volunteer tutor training. In my conversations with John O'Leary, I learned that he was dedicated to his faith - a devout Catholic and active in his community. He was leader who could walk with the 'kings and queens as well as as the beggars on the street'. This was exemplified in the work he did for Frontier College as well as in his private life. I'm thankful he graced us with his presence at Beat the Street's 30th Anniversary Celebration in September 2018. I feel privileged to have served under his leadership. He will be missed. I like to think of John O'Leary as passing into the 'light'."

From Stacy Sullivan, Community Coordinator, Sudbury, Frontier College

"My first year volunteering with Frontier College, John came to Sudbury to do a professional development workshop for our local volunteers. His passion for literacy was contagious - everybody left that workshop excited for the work they were doing with Frontier College.My prayers go out to his family during this difficult time."

From Audrey Thomas, former board member (1990-2000) and board chair (1995-1997), Frontier College

"It was with sadness that I heard about the passing of John O'Leary from a former federal literacy colleague.  John and I go back to the mid-1970s when we were both working in various ways on the Canadian Literacy issue.

I first met him at a Frontier College Annual General Meeting where I was giving a workshop and John was a fairly new literacy tutor at a correctional facility in Manitoba.  His earnestness and dedication to the issue were already apparent.  In one of the discussion groups there,  a professor from one of the Ottawa universities was declaring the merits of Paulo Freire and the differences between "domestication" and "liberation".  In the "overthrow of society" theme the contribution of the individual to make meaningful change appeared to be neglected.  John was disturbed and I remember supporting him in his efforts to make a change one person at a time.

Fast forward a decade or so later when the National Literacy Secretariat had just been announced and there was a big conference in Toronto.  I bumped into John, but not immediately recognizing him, couldn't help myself and blurted out  "John you look so old!"  (He had lost most of his hair and it shocked me.)  I don't think he ever forgave me, especially as he was at least a decade or so younger than myself!  He often brought it up in subsequent meetings we had!

Ironically, I had just made a donation to Frontier College last week before I got the news and have since seen and read the various fine tributes to John on various sites.  (On one of them there is a younger John with a lovely head of hair! - Forgive me my friend!)

From 1990 to 2000 I was on the Board of Governors of Frontier College when John became President. From 1995-97, when  I was Chair of the Board,  I made it a practice to arrive in Toronto on the Thursday before the weekend meetings, so I could get over the jet lag and spend part of Friday in "catch-up" on College and literacy issues with John.  We walked from the College to Fran's on College Street to which so many have already alluded, and "chewed the fat".  

I was last in contact with him when he received his Honorary Doctorate from Carleton University.  I heard about it from Shelagh Rogers and she sent me his email so I could congratulate him.  We corresponded for a while after that and reminisced a bit about the "early days" of the Movement.

John was absolutely dedicated to literacy and the difference it could make in people's lives.  Many of his ideas bore fruit in different initiatives others have mentioned.  A favorite anecdote for him was to tell of the hedge schools In Ireland and to draw comparisons with Frontier's founder, Alfred Fitzpatrick - whose dictum John instilled into us - "Whenever and wherever people shall have occasion to congregate, then and there shall be ... the means of their education".

Well done, good and faithful servant.  Rest in Peace."

From Frank Vetere, Receptionist, Frontier College

"In 2017 I was hired as bilingual receptionist and in an effort to familiarize myself with our programming, I volunteered for a few weeks in the Homework Club at the Dufferin School in the Regent Park neighbourhood. I had the good fortune to meet John who was still volunteering. After the formal part of the session was done, he would haul out a chess board and teach the kids to play. They would gather around him enthusiastically. I would also run into him at a nearby cafe on the way to work, and he was always ensconced in the same spot towards the back, with a coffee and his face buried in the morning paper. We would wave to one another. You never know when the last wave is going to be."

Most recently John worked at the Anishnawbe Health Foundation. In John’s honour, the O’Leary family has established the John D. O’Leary Memorial Fund at Anishnawbe Health FoundationProceeds from the fund will support the Campaign for a new Anishnawbe Health Toronto, and will honour his life-long dedication to learning and teaching and a special area in the new Health Centre will be named in honour of John. 

Posted: 4/27/2020 3:40:04 PM by Meredith Roberts

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