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The Globe and Mail

Lives Lived: Isabel Frances Leith Macdonald, 96

Isabel Frances Leith Macdonald died in Toronto of pneumonia. She was 96.

Mother, teacher, actress, filmmaker. Born Jan. 7, 1917, in Tamsui, Taiwan, died Jan. 16, 2013, in Toronto of pneumonia, aged 96.

Leith was born in present-day Taiwan in 1917. Her father, James Ferguson, was chief surgeon in Taipei at one of the first Western-style hospitals in the Far East. By the time Leith was five, she had crossed the Pacific once, the Atlantic twice, travelled across Canada and she already spoke two languages.

She had phenomenal memories of her early childhood, and often amazed family and friends with the tale of a long sea voyage when she was only 3. She recounted this journey in a talk at the Toronto Heliconian Club in 1991. It was poignant to hear how this little girl had found her way down to steerage, where she watched a burial at sea and was alarmed for the deceased man.

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At a celebration of her life held at the Heliconian in April, the tributes recounted her influence as a high school drama teacher and colleague, and how she had been a mentor for so many students in their successful academic and career choices.

Leith started acting while attending the University of Toronto and starred in four plays at Hart House. She joined the professional Charles Coburn Mohawk Drama Festival in Schenectady, N.Y., in 1938 for three seasons of Summer Stock, and acted and directed with the Ottawa Drama League from 1940 to 1950.

She also had a 24-year career as a drama teacher and department head at East York Collegiate. She directed four award-winning plays for the Simpson's Collegiate Drama Festival at Hart House and established the first Grade 13 theatre arts program in Ontario as well as the first television and film course in the borough of East York.

Leith always remained positive in difficult times. When she lost her beloved husband, Ross, in 1981, she was heartbroken, but carried on teaching. After she retired, she set about establishing a scholarship in Ross's name at the University of Toronto. The proceeds from a documentary she produced on 1930s Korea went into the scholarship fund.

She was a perfectionist in her professional life and would even criticize her family if necessary. During production of a television documentary with her husband, who was the interviewer, there was a break for lunch and Ross went with the technical crew for a drink. When he got back under the hot lights, his performance was affected and he was strongly reprimanded by Leith, the director.

She loved her piano. She started to play by ear after listening in on her older brother's lessons. The piano soon passed to Leith and remained her constant companion until she went to a nursing home for the last 3 1/2 years of her life. No longer able to play, she started singing. In her very sweet voice, she would sing Jesus Loves Me in Chinese, her first language, taught to her by the Chinese nurse who cared for her for her first three years.

Leith loved her nurse, Atwa, and was heartbroken when the family moved to Edinburgh and Atwa stayed behind.

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In Edinburgh, Leith and her mother started reading a wonderful children's history book together – Our Island Story. This began Leith's passionate interest in everything historical, and she loved to visit castles during her frequent trips to Britain to see her daughter and son-in-law.

Two years ago, when Leith was told that her theatre, television and film work was being preserved by the Canadian Broadcast Museum Foundation, she was amazed and exclaimed: "I did all of that!"

Stephanie Macdonald is Leith's daughter.

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