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They called her Miss Mary. And for hundreds of girls at two of Toronto's most exclusive private schools, the former physical-education teacher served as an inspiration for life, happiness and health.

Mary Ross Barker -- who would have turned 100 in January -- died in Ingonish, N.S., on July 21.

Ms. Barker was born in Toronto in 1905, the only child of Wesley Barker, of Springfield, Mass., and Christine Ross, of Little Bras d'Or in Cape Breton. She attended Branksome Hall from 1913 to 1923.

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As a student, she spent considerable time in the head mistress's office.

"I was 'sent to Miss Read' frequently for being impertinent, being late, having my hands dirty," she recalled in The Road Well Kept, Heather Robertson's history of Branksome Hall. But the encounters didn't appear to dampen her enthusiasm for the school: "She never chewed me out."

Much to her surprise, Ms. Barker was later hired to work as the junior school's gym mistress, teaching swimming and life-saving skills to the it's 250 students.

She worked at the school for four years, beginning in 1925, and was considered a pioneer in women's athletics and volunteerism. In 1929, she moved to another girls school, Loretto Abbey, to teach gymnastics. In an article that appeared in The Read, Branksome's alumnae magazine, she said she could "scarcely believe" that a Catholic girls school would agree to hire a Protestant teacher "with a Presbyterian for a grandmother and a heathen for a grandfather."

When she retired and moved to Ingonish in 1957, she built a house by the sea and spent many mornings walking her Newfoundland dog down to the wharf to visit the fishermen.

In 1999, Ms. Barker became a member of the Order of Canada.

"She had a tremendous spirit. No obstacle was too big to conquer. She just moved with the times," said Susan Ross, Ms. Barker's cousin and a Branksome Hall alumna. "She was 99 when she died, but she always seemed young to me."

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