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lives lived

Jean LewingtonCourtesy of family

Evelyn Jean Bowie Lewington: Farmer. Painter. Veteran. Skilled listener. Born Aug 1. 1920, in Hertfordshire, England; died May 27, 2019, at home near London, Ont., of natural causes; aged 98.

Asked to imagine the perfect photo of Jean Lewington, family and friends agreed it would be one taken with her various farm animals. Over the years, what began with Holstein milking cows and, later, a cow-calf beef herd gave way to a menagerie of sheep, chickens, donkeys, peacocks, a neighbour’s two llamas and a succession of golden retrievers. Even the smallest insects, including ants and spiders, attracted her interest, and a resident daddy long legs enjoyed a quiet spot in a corner of her bathroom.

In 1947, with their Second World War service behind them, Jean and her newlywed husband, Peter Lewington, left England for Canada. Jean had served in the Women’s Royal Naval Service, including as an ambulance driver and radar operator.

With little farming experience, they purchased a 100-acre property north of London, Ont., that had been abandoned for seven years. At Larigmoor Farm, they raised a herd of top-performing Holsteins.

Jean demonstrated a rapport with animals. On one occasion, a young calf fractured its leg, usually a fatal injury. A chance conversation with the family dentist led Jean to procure a small quantity of quick-drying dental cement to fix the calf’s leg in place. Later, the calf became a top milking cow.

Her affinity for animals – and people – had roots in her childhood. She lost both her parents by the age of 10, spending her early years in south Wales with relatives and only the youngest of her four brothers. There she learned to row, sail, and fish for lobster and mackerel. She never lost her love of the sea.

Despite family loss, she developed a pragmatic, positive outlook on life. A gifted listener, she had an effortless way of putting others first, often without their knowledge. When Western University was considering an honorary degree for Peter for his contributions to agriculture and the environment, Jean did not tell Peter in case the award never materialized. For two years, she and others assembled the documents requested by the university, which conferred the degree in 1987.

In the 1950s, despite the demands of a busy farming operation and typing, editing and proofreading all of Peter’s magazine and book manuscripts, Jean took her three young children for regular visits to the London Public Library, instilling in them a lifelong love of reading. Years later, when two of her preteen grandchildren were upset over the sale of their family’s cottage, Jean picked them up to visit her farm for a few days. She pretended to get lost, dropping by a golden retriever breeder she knew for directions, confident puppies would be there to cheer up the despondent children.

Her resilience showed when Peter died suddenly at 68. Jean had to decide if she would sell the farm, now a cash-crop operation. She chose to stay, thanks in part to a close relationship with neighbours who operated the big equipment for planting and harvesting.

As a widow, she embraced a lookahead attitude, taking up amateur painting, enrolling in courses at the University of Western Ontario and retaining her dominance at Scrabble. A chance meeting with nearby neighbours led to their joining forces to repopulate the farm with assorted animals, including sheep. On bitterly cold February nights, often when the ewes delivered triplets, Jean nursed the weakest newborns in the house until they were strong enough to return to their mothers.

Jean charmed people with stories of her life on the farm, but it was her curiosity about life and people that endeared her to so many, a beacon on how to live life to the fullest.

Written by Jennifer Lewington, one of Jean’s daughters, with her family.