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Jalynn Bennett, shown here in 2002, described life as a corporate director as decidedly unglamorous, complete with hours of reading, long meetings and ‘occasional moments of random terror.’

Patti Gower/The Globe and Mail

Throughout her life, Jalynn Bennett, powerhouse businesswoman, gentle breaker of glass ceilings and doting mom to three, took on men at every game except one: golf.

A whip-smart, soft-spoken consultant who started in the mid-1960s as a secretary in the investment division at Manulife Financial Corp., Ms. Bennett's career was filled with breakthroughs, including stints as a director of the Bank of Canada from 1989 to 1994, commissioner of the Ontario Securities Commission and chair of the board of governors at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont.

In the early 1990s, she passed off the fact she was the first woman to be admitted as a member of the Toronto Club and the York Club as a "historical fluke." She became a board member of a number of organizations, including the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan and the Hospital for Sick Children Foundation.

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When it came to sports, however, Ms. Bennett was not nearly as adept. In the early 1960s, while spending a year at Wellesley College, near Boston, she had to take a course in golf for a physical education credit. At the end of the year, her teacher agreed to pass her with the proviso that she never again pick up a golf club.

"She never did," said her friend, Barbara McDougall, the former federal Conservative cabinet minister who put forward Ms. Bennett's name for the Bank of Canada directorship.

Ms. Bennett, who died on Jan. 23 at the age of 71 after falling down the cellar stairs at her Toronto home, didn't need a golf club to get ahead in business. Rather, she used common sense, an untiring work ethic and a need both to please and to be inclusive to flourish in a world dominated by men.

"Her whole life was geared to helping and pleasing other people," said Peggy Turner, a pediatrician who first met Ms. Bennett in nursery school. After a bout with breast cancer, for example, Ms. Bennett was torn about whether to get an implant because one surgeon was urging her to do so and another was against it. "She said, 'I can't disappoint the surgeons,'" Dr. Turner recalled. "We all said, 'Jalynn, it's your choice!'"

Ms. McDougall noted that people wrongly assumed her friend simply floated to the top, an effortless success story about someone from a well-to-do background who never encountered real hardship.

"But Jalynn worked hard and overcame challenges to get where she was," Ms. McDougall said. "She was just very quiet about it."

Jalynn Rogers was born in Toronto on March 12, 1943, the eldest of Alfred and Elizabeth Rogers's two daughters. Her first name came about because her mother wanted to call her Lynn, while her father was a huge fan of the Jalna novels by Canadian author Mazo de la Roche.

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Her family life was filled with horses, dogs and noise. Her parents separated early on, a scandal at a time when divorce was something to be avoided at all cost. Her mother, known as Betty, was petite, vivacious and fiercely protective of her girls; she drove a convertible and wore stilettos to give herself height and authority. When she married a second time, to John Trumbull Band, young Jalynn and Jennifer, who was two years younger, found themselves having to get along with two stepsisters and a stepbrother.

"We learned early on to be inclusive and to compromise," Jennifer Rogers said. "I got into trouble. My sister was perfect. She followed the rules and thought everything through. In a way, she gave me permission to push boundaries and then she enjoyed watching the consequences."

The sisters also learned how to make the most of situations, especially when events were out of their control. Jennifer Rogers recalled one occasion, many years later, when both sisters had children of their own, when they went on a family ski holiday in Austria, only to see their train delayed because of an avalanche.

"After the track was cleared, Jalynn and I got on the train with the two youngest kids to receive suitcases, with the rest of the family acting as an assembly line on the platform. All of a sudden, the train started to move and we left everybody on the platform behind," she said.

"We just looked at each other and started to laugh," she continued. "We were crying, we were laughing so hard. Because we knew we'd meet up with the rest of the family sooner or later. And we did."

At the Bishop Strachan School in Toronto, Jalynn was at once an ace student and popular; she was a natural choice for the position of head girl in her final year. After her year at Wellesley, when she tried to learn golf, she returned home and, in 1965, completed a degree in economics at Trinity College, at the University of Toronto.

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At Manulife, she was quickly promoted from answering telephones, eventually ending up as the company's vice-president of corporate development.

In the 1970s, she began to sit on boards, often the only woman at the table. That work continued when she left the company in 1989 to start her own consulting company, Jalynn H. Bennett and Associates, which specialized in strategic planning and organizational development.

In a 2002 interview with The Globe and Mail, she said her life as a corporate director was decidedly unglamorous, complete with hours of preparatory readings, long meetings and "occasional moments of random terror."

"You worry about missing something," Ms. Bennett said. "You wake up in the middle of the night and start thinking, 'I wonder how this is going to unfold. Who is the next right person? Is this the right direction?'"

Management consultant Terry Bisset said her long-time friend's thoughtful approach and calm demeanour has led to people confronted with professional or personal problems asking themselves, "What would Jalynn do?"

Sometimes, male attitudes were jarring. When they were in their 40s, both women were confined to their beds because of back problems; Ms. Bisset recalled that Ms. Bennett told her that her doctor had advised that she not return to work until she could pull up her pantyhose by herself.

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Ms. Bennett recovered first and brought her friend a gift: delicate white-lace shoulder pads. "It was a sign that I was carrying far too much, but I would get through," Ms. Bisset said. "We all wore shoulder pads back then to show the boys that we were as strong as they were. But we were women, too."

A Tory from the get-go, Ms. Bennett met David Crombie, the former mayor of Toronto, during his run for the leadership of the federal Progressive Conservative Party in 1983. She gave him tutorials about finance and the economy.

He described her as a teacher who "wore her intellect and quality lightly and with grace. Her style was to engage you and listen to what you had to say."

Later, the two continued their acquaintance at a Saturday morning "coffee club" in central Toronto, where politics were often on the agenda. "The fact that she was the only woman in the club didn't dawn on anybody," Mr. Crombie recalled. "The group always wanted to hear what she had to say."

Ms. Bennett had three children with her first husband, architect William Bennett, and was married twice more before meeting her partner, Bill James, 23 years ago. He was the yin to her yang; loud, laughing and boisterous to her quiet intelligence and humour.

A haven was their vacation home – set on the water, surrounded by great rocks – in a fishing village near Lunenburg, N.S. She painted there and became passionate about preserving lighthouses, working with people such as Margaret McCain, the philanthropist and former lieutenant-governor of New Brunswick.

Among her many honours, Ms. Bennett was named a member of the Order of Canada in 2000 and given an honorary degree from Trinity College in 2004.

Along with her sister and Mr. James, Ms. Bennett leaves her daughter, Alexandra Bennett; sons, Braden and Sam Bennett; grandchildren; stepchildren; and a host of friends.

"Friendship is a gift and Jalynn had it in spades," Ms. McDougall said. "What will I miss about her? Everything."

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