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Jean Cochrane gave back to NOTL with love

Jean Cochrane, the last of the old guard of Niagara-on- the-Lake Horticultural Society members who contributed so much to the gardening culture of NOTL, has died. She passed away Jan. 7 at Upper Canada Lodge, her home for about four years.
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Sheila Hirsch-Kalm and Jean Cochrane at a NOTL Horticultural Society meeting.

Jean Cochrane, the last of the old guard of Niagara-on-the-Lake Horticultural Society members who contributed so much to the gardening culture of NOTL, has died.

She passed away Jan. 7 at Upper Canada Lodge, her home for about four years.

Her daughter Sue Reece says they hadn’t been able to see each other over Christmas due to COVID-19, but her mother had recovered, and her death of heart failure came as a surprise.

Shirley Madsen, president of the horticultural society when Cochrane was presented with her 25-year pin, was saddened to learn of Cochrane’s passing.

Saturday, the day she died, gardening friends were attending the funeral of Sheila Hirsh-Kalm, who shared their passion. Jean and Sheila had been good friends, both involved in the Garden of Hope plantings, beginning in 2003.

The Garden of the Week contest that began in Niagara-on-the-Lake more than 20 years ago was Cochrane’s initiative during the town’s first entry into a Communities in Bloom contest. It was organized to encourage homeowners to help beautify their neighbourhoods, and it was as a result of the involvement with Communities in Bloom that Niagara-on-the-Lake became referred to as the prettiest town in Canada.

As Madsen recalls, “the town, the Niagara Advance (the community newspaper that was shut down in 2017), and some members of the Niagara-
on-the-Lake Horticultural Society put their minds together, and up bloomed the Garden of the Week contest. Lydia Sukis, Jean Cochrane, Nan Ford and Hilja Rannala participated in this weekly program over the summer months.”

The four women went out to scout gardens and judge them “week after week in the rain and humidity to pick the best residential and commercial garden.”

The winning gardens and their owners were photographed by the Niagara Advance, the pictures published on the front page, and at the end of the season, Madsen recalls, contest winners were invited to a gathering organized by the town to receive a certificate for their win.

“Jean, Lydia, Nan and Hilja for years enjoyed meeting weekly, judging gardens and then would meet for coffee, conversation or lunch,” says Madsen.

In 2005, when Cochrane decided it was time “to pass on the branch,” Madsen says, she took it on, deciding it would be a great way “to get involved not only with the community, but also learn from these well-seasoned gardeners.” She says she did her best “to fill Jean Cochrane’s gardening boots,” and was always amazed at the expertise these women had, knowing most of the horticultural names of many plants they judged in the gardens. She remembers Jean telling her to make sure she didn’t discuss her points or opinions with the other judges — “it had to be fair and square.”

During a Niagara-on-the-Lake Horticultural Society meeting in October 2006, Madsen recognized Cochrane as founder of the Garden of the Week contest with a plaque and token — she had then dedicated 10 years to this program. 

“Reluctantly, in 2013 the Garden of the Week contest went dormant,” says Madsen, although it was resurrected in a slightly different format over the last couple of years.

Cochrane also wrote a weekly column for the Niagara Advance, all four seasons, continuing from 1998 until 2015. Although the goal was always to help others with their gardening problems, her sense of humour and personal touch was appreciated by her readers.

Reece says her mother wasn’t just interested in beautifying the town through gardening, she was also intensely proud of the town’s heritage, and fought many battles to preserve it. Cochrane was concerned about what she considered unsightly and inappropriate development, and actively fought against it, including going to town council and voicing her opposition.

“If she thought something was wrong, she spoke up about it,” says Reece.

The family — Jean and her husband Tom; Sue, aged three; and her brother Bryan, seven — arrived in Canada on a boat from Scotland in 1967, where the couple had met in a town called Greenbrook, and married in 1956.

They settled in Montreal, and eventually moved to Niagara Falls, where Tom had been offered a job he wanted to accept.

Jean loved Niagara-on-the-Lake, and operated a store on Queen Street called The Gingham Patch through the ’70s and ’80s, first at the corner of Regent Street, and then across the street beside the Royal George.

Eventually they found a house in town and moved from the falls, and Jean became involved in many activities in town, including the restoration of the former pumphouse to an arts centre. She was also heavily involved in the NOTL Chamber of Commerce, and the early days of organizing the Candlelight Stroll.

She was a member of the Albainn Society (now the St. Andrew’s Society), and loved to plan elaborate parties, including an annual event at the Court House on New Year’s Eve, says Reece.

When Quebec experienced a devastating ice storm and many trees were broken from the weight of the ice, Cochrane organized an initiative to send small trees to Quebec to be planted, recalls Reece.

She jokes that although it was her mother who took up so many causes, her father was always called on to help. “My mother would come home from some meeting or another, and he’d say, “what have you got me into now?”

But he never said no, and helped out willingly, she says.

In later years, Reece jokes, when Sheila arrived in town and the two women would take on a cause together, “they’d walk into a room and there would be an audible groan.”

They were both strong women, with strong opinions, who battled for what they believed to be right — they were both characters and together made a formidable pair.

“Anything worth a fight, my mother would fight for. She was not afraid of anything. If something was wrong to her, she said so. And she would have done anything for anybody.”

Her parents did everything for her and her brother, says Reece, and adored her daughter, Sara, but what she remembers most is their love for each other. “They had a phenomenal marriage. They were two different sides of the same coin.”

Tom died in 2011, and Reece says, “my mother never got over losing my father. They were incredible together.”

They both loved to dance, and were good at it. “When they danced, they looked like they were one person. Their marriage, and love for each other, was what songs and poems are written about. They were very lucky — they had a great life together. I’m glad they’re together again.”

A celebration of Jean’s life will take place on Saturday Jan. 21, 11 a.m. at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, 323 Simcoe St, Niagara on the Lake, On. Interment to follow the service in St. Andrew's Cemetery, with a reception to follow.