Flora Jean Boynton was born on Oct. 26, 1927, to Gordon and Jemima “Mina” McGillivray, farmers in Kleinburg, Ont., a village located about 40 km north of Toronto. The second of three girls, she was raised in a monarchist family in which the Presbyterian Church figured prominently and the concept of “king and country” still resonated. Jean, as she was known, was a chubby baby with big brown eyes, who “stole the show,” says younger sister Ruth. As a child, digestive problems often landed her in a hammock for afternoon rests, but she remained “a sunny kid” who rarely complained, says Ruth.
During the Great Depression, farmhands were a luxury, and during the Second World War they were scarce, so the girls were depended upon to help. Jean “enjoyed working outdoors,” but Ruth recalls the pair of them, unloading grain, “hoping for rain so we could stop.” Church was the source of both spiritual and musical inspiration. Jean learned to play the organ, and as teens, the sisters joined a choral group, with whom they sang religious songs. Though Jean “struggled a bit with school, she had fun doing it,” says Ruth. Without regular transportation, the girls boarded in nearby Weston during high school, where Jean continued until Grade 11. Like her parents, she was drawn to community groups. Through her involvement with the Junior Farmers’ Association of Ontario, she met Carl Boynton, “a fine man” with a keen sense of humour, says Ruth. In 1956, they were married, and after a few years on Carl’s family farm in Woodbridge, they settled in Nobleton.
Situated in King Township, an area settled in the 1700s by United Empire Loyalists from the U.S., Nobleton was home to about 1,000 when the Boyntons arrived. Their dairy farm, located on Highway 27 south of King Street, became “part of the landscape of Nobleton,” says friend Nancy Hopkinson. By 1965, the couple had four sons—Neil, Ross, Scott and Lawrie—whom locals knew as “the Boynton boys.” Jean sang in the church choir and became a prominent member of the Women’s Institute and the United Church Women.
Farm life was gruelling, but Jean and Carl were “a super couple” who always remained upbeat, says Scott. Not inclined to “open affection,” their bond was apparent “by the way they looked at each other,” he says. In 1975, Carl developed flu-like symptoms. By the time he was diagnosed with cancer, it was too late. Though Jean “never got over dad passing,” says Scott, she drew strength from her sons—known thereafter as “Jean’s boys.” They sold the milk cows but kept the farm, which later became a successful sod business.
Jean’s community involvement and family, which grew to include grandchildren and great-grandchildren, kept her busy. Having moved into town after Carl died, she began her tenure as crossing guard for Nobleton Junior Public School in 1983. Jean endeared herself to the children, who called her “Grandma Boynton.” Says Scott, “People didn’t know me in town, but they knew my mother.” Grandson Nick Boynton, who played in the NHL,was a particular source of pride. Jean watched every game, and kept up to date on the family farm, “so she could be authoritative” in conversations at Tim Hortons, where she regularly held court, says Scott.
Widely regarded as the “Matriarch of Nobleton,” says town councillor Jeff Laidlaw, Jean was a natural choice to play Queen Victoria in the annual Victoria Day parade. Lynda Rogers, who came up with the idea in 2004, fashioned a period costume; a black dress puffed out with crinoline, and a matching jacket and gloves. (Victoria never recovered from her husband’s death in 1861, and wore the funerary hue for her remaining 40 years.) The complicated rigging took two people to put on—“We could understand why [Victoria] had to have a maid and a lady-in-waiting,” says Lynda—but Jean was always a good sport. As Victoria, she used ribbon to tie a black hat around her short hair, and waved to the crowd from the back of a convertible. At the celebration that followed, Jean helped the mayor cut the cake, and posed for photos with the kids. Says Jeff, “It was a very fitting role for her.”
In 2004, Jean moved into a retirement home. “She knew all the women who lived there,” says Scott. Before long, she had successfully petitioned Jeff to replace the tattered Canada flag on the front lawn. Though she walked with a cane, Jean was in good health, and kept driving until this past winter. In March, she came down with what appeared to be flu, but was actually a twist in her small intestine. A few days after an operation to repair it, her condition deteriorated. On March 13, the Matriarch of Nobleton died. Jean Boynton was 81; the same age as Queen Victoria when she passed away.