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Jeanne Patricia Milovanovic: Mother. Educator. Trailblazer. Humanitarian. Born Dec. 7, 1930, in Edinburgh, Scotland; died Aug. 21, 2019, in Markham, Ont., of congestive heart failure, aged 87.

Jeanne Milovanovic.Courtesy of family

One of the most admirable things about Jeanne was her willingness to engage with the unknown – whether stepping off the dock into a foreign land or blazing trails for women’s rights.

Jeanne Allen was the only child of a single mother in Britain. When her mother died suddenly, the 13-year-old was left in the care of an unkind aunt – or as Jeanne put it, “on her own.” She never forgot the sour-faced vicar who begrudgingly offered to perform rites by her mother’s graveside – not in the church, due to her unwed status. Uncowed, Jeanne told him precisely what she thought – a process she would repeat throughout her lifetime.

In 1945, Jeanne studied to become a nurse, which meant room and board in a three-year program. Always one with a keen eye for fashion, Jeanne later admitted she’d been partial to the crisp uniform.

During her placement at the Royal Infirmary in Gloucester, she met a young porter who’d sent all the nurses’ hearts aflutter, and it was not long before she and the refugee from former Yugoslavia were inseparable. Two years later, in 1954, Jeanne and Dusan Milovanovic married just a few days before the birth of their their first son, Peter.

Although these were happy times, they were not without difficulties; Jeanne was not accepted by Dusan’s community – “the strange British wife” – and the family encountered discrimination in Britain that would compel Jeanne to a lifelong dedication to human rights. With a stiff upper lip, she set about making a home for her family, starting with wooden crates as a makeshift bassinet and boiling water over an open-coal fire. By 1959, there were two more sons, Nicholas and David.

Both Dusan and Jeanne encouraged their sons to value education; so when the school’s headmaster stated frankly that their surname would limit Peter’s academic progress, they’d had enough. In August, 1964, the family of five travelled to Canada.

Settling in Scarborough, Ont., Jeanne juggled night shifts as a nurse so as to spend time with her three boys. Eventually, she enrolled in college to become a teacher but didn’t stop there. At 37, Jeanne and Dusan, 43, pursued degrees at the University of Toronto in tandem – attending their courses on opposite nights so as to care for the children.

Jeanne became a principal for the Scarborough Board of Education before her appointment as area superintendent. She was also president of the Federation of Women Teachers of Ontario and served on many teacher organizations. She was no shrinking violet when it came to tackling the institutional boys’ clubs she found. When male colleagues tried to exclude her using the whisky and cigar routine, she simply learned to appreciate scotch (Chivas Regal was her favourite). As her career accelerated, Dusan retired to look after the family: managing the shopping, learning to cook and doing laundry.

In 1987, Jeanne was appointed as the first female superintendent of the Scarborough Board, and it was there that she made the most impact. She helped launch Reading Recovery in Ontario schools and took it countrywide through the Canadian Institute of Reading Recovery.

The couple were preparing for the days when they were both retired when Dusan succumbed to an acute illness in 1994. In her grief, she turned to family and the comfort of her friends; even returning to England to visit with the chosen family that she and Dusan had cultivated together. As time went on, she enjoyed taking cruises and visited Serbia. She’d helped raise money for orphanages in the country by contributing to a book about women who’d married Serbian men postwar. One of her proudest moments was travelling there to help select and distribute resources.

When Jeanne did retire in 1996, after nearly 30 years as an educator, she received congratulations from far and wide, including then prime minister Jean Chrétien.

Although illnesses such as skin cancer and congestive heart failure left her physically frail, Jeanne always trusted in some new and marvellous experience, just around the corner.

Nikki Milovanovic is Jeanne’s granddaughter.

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