Runner, groundbreaker, sister, friend. Born Sept. 2, 1950, in Ottawa, died June 27, 2012, in Montague, PEI, of peritoneal mesothelioma, aged 61.
The daughter of Edna Daley and James Downey, Jo grew up Irish Catholic in Ottawa South with three sisters and a brother.
After graduating from Glebe Collegiate, she left home to study at Mohawk College and McMaster University. Her home was in Hamilton, Ont., and then Burlington, Ont., for many years.
She excelled in her career in social work, eventually opening her own practice as a family and behavioural therapist.
She loved Canada’s East Coast, and moved to the small community of Montague on Prince Edward Island a decade ago.
She took a position as co-ordinator of hospice and volunteer services, and co-workers spoke of how she changed the hospice for the better through her leadership, training and fundraising.
Jo was an active Rotarian in Burlington and in Montague. She spent countless hours raising funds to better those communities.
She was also an active member of her church in Montague – hard to believe of the girl who found creative ways to escape mass at St. Margaret Mary’s in Ottawa.
Jo was never afraid of challenges. She lived every day believing that she, and all of us, could accomplish anything we set our minds to.
Following back surgery when she was 31, she began walking as part of her recovery, but quickly decided running would be more interesting. Soon, she was completing marathons and ultramarathons in Canada, the United States, Britain, Europe and the former Soviet Union.
Her determination and stamina amazed her friends. On those long runs, she dreamed about running across Canada. In 1994, she did it – completing 7,250 kilometres in 111 days. Although she wasn’t the first woman to accomplish it, she is still the fastest. She kept an account of those long and sometimes lonely days; just reading it is exhausting.
Many turned to Jo, as a professional or a friend, when they needed personal guidance. They found her attentive and brutally honest. She never allowed them to wallow in self-pity, but helped them face their situation and move forward.
In June, 2011, she was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma, a rare, incurable cancer caused by exposure to asbestos – a shock, since there was no obvious “how” or “when.”
After a hard-fought battle, Jo died in the hospice she ran, cared for by her amazing friends (who knew better than to hover). She willed her body to science, and is now in the care of Nova Scotia’s Dalhousie University.
We remember her spunk, her stubbornness (with her to the end), her unique sense of style, and her outrageous long red hair. You may not always have agreed with or understood Jo, but you could never argue with her courage.
She was a complex and often misunderstood woman with strong opinions on many issues which she wasn’t afraid to share. She would want us to take some of her courage to realize our own dreams.
Colleen Downey is Jo’s sister. Mary Guilfoyle and Marlene Etherington are her cousins.