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Gardener, teacher, mentor, husband, father. Born Oct. 23, 1949, in Toronto, died Sept. 9, 2012, in Port Dalhousie, Ont., of leukemia, aged 62.

Gardening was John's passion, people his forte.

Staff at the Toronto Botanical Garden, where John was head of volunteer services, planted an American larch to commemorate a man who truly embodied their mission statement: "connecting people and the natural world through education, inspiration and leadership."

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When studying garden design at George Brown College, he had chosen the larch for his presentation. A hardy, bright green, deciduous conifer, its branches lift skyward like John's positive spirit.

Inspired by John's enthusiasm, the number of volunteer tour guides at TBG had increased from 20 to 60. His encouragement made people feel appreciated and empowered.

John grew up in Leaside, Toronto, where his zest for life surfaced early. He loved the outdoors, swimming, gardening, music, playing piano and acting.

As an adult, he performed as an extra in more than 35 operas with the Canadian Opera Company.

After graduating from University of Toronto with a master's degree in education, John started his teaching career in East York.

He was recognized as a champion of child-centred learning, and loved for his warmth and sense of humour.

Later, as an instructor and co-ordinator at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, he mentored teacher candidates and guided career paths, making a difference to the lives of many.

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During 33 years of marriage, John and his wife Denise raised Laura, Heather and Jennifer to become capable and compassionate young women. John encouraged them to cultivate their imaginations and follow their hearts.

"As young children, Dad had us help," recalls Jennifer. "While digging in our garden Dad would pick out wiggling worms, handing them to us to transplant to a new home, teaching us to treat all things with respect."

Although he lived with cancer for 12 years, John's joy would not be vanquished. He pursued life and all its wonders, sailing on tall ships, acting, writing and studying cooking, blacksmithing and garden design.

Throughout, he possessed a special way with people.

How many of us chase our dreams? In his final year, John fulfilled his.

He and partner Randy Jackson moved to a property in Port Dalhousie, Ont., where he mapped out his own designs, planting on an empty palette of soil. He created a desert garden, a woodland garden in the form of a wave, a wildflower/butterfly garden, a prolific vegetable patch and sun, shade and perennial gardens. He lived to see their splendour through two of the four seasons.

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What is important is not how long we live, but how well and how we are remembered. Ralph Waldo Emerson said we should "laugh often and much, win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children … find the best in others [and] leave the world a better place." That was John.

Gail Murray is John's friend and colleague.

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