John Barton was born on April 11, 1957, in Ottawa. His father, Jack, had arrived in Canada from England as a merchant mariner, met his wife, Susan, and supported his family as a bartender. When he wasn’t working, Jack was an active man, and encouraged his kids to get outside and play whenever possible.
As a child, John relished the freedom of open spaces. With his three siblings, Ron, Jeannie, and Norman, he would stay outdoors, sometimes all day, only returning for meals. He was so enthusiastic about little league he’d sleep with his baseball glove. Another passion, sister Jeannie says, was his bicycle: “I remember he got his first bike really young, and he just loved riding.”
When John was 14 at Glebe Collegiate—before switching to Ottawa Technical High School—he met Judy Green. “As teenagers, we used to cycle up in the Gatineau hills,” she recalls. “John was athletic, but not so much like the sports team sort of guy.” He was quiet, with a dry sense of humour, always finding solace in the outdoors.
The pair dated on and off through high school, but Judy left Ottawa to study psychology at Hamilton’s McMaster University in 1975. John stayed behind, for diplomas in architectural technology and later computer technology at Algonquin College. The difficulties of a long-distance relationship were exacerbated when Judy was offered a job as a Montessori teacher in Switzerland. Over those four months apart, they kept in touch by trading letters, but Judy didn’t know what to expect when she returned to Canada.
In April 1983, John met her at the airport with four red roses, one for each month she had been away. “He wasn’t overly expressive, so when he made these gestures they were very meaningful,” she says. A year and a half later, they married at the age of 28.
The young couple settled in a house in Vanier, in the east end of Ottawa, and later in Kanata. John worked as a computer programmer for the government, where he served for 28 years. “He was really a practical person,” says Judy. “He liked the security of the job.”
And in his leisure time, he cycled. Friends noted that he was good on a bike, and had tremendous balance: wearing shoes that clipped into his pedals, he could stay upright at red lights. For 20 years (when weather permitted) John also cycled the 24 km from Kanata to work in Hull, Que., usually on a gold CCM Supercycle—complete with leather seat—that he had cherished since his teenage years. Though he didn’t often cycle competitively, he’d keep track of his timing, distance, and even the wind conditions in order to measure his progress. Most important, though, was the way riding made him feel. “He used to say that after a hard week at work, he’d get on his bike, and even if he wasn’t in a good mood, he’d ride and all of that was gone,” says his wife.
In 1989, John and Judy’s first daughter, Emma, was born. In 1992 came Kathryn. As a father, John’s proudest moment was when his girls learned how to ride a two-wheeler. “They initially had training wheels, but he told them they needed to learn to balance because that’s what cycling is about,” says Judy. “He took their training wheels off and ran down the street when they rode. I remember how happy he was.”
His love of the outdoors also fuelled his passion for cycling. “As an avid cyclist, John was able to combine his two interests, sports and the environment,” says his brother-in-law Arthur Green. John had been an environmentalist long before it was fashionable, joining Friends of the Rainforest, and burying himself in books about sustainable development and green living—such as How to Clean Naturally—which he liked to give away as gifts.
When the family travelled to Tuscany last summer, John didn’t bring his bike. As if it were his mistress, he told Judy: “This is our trip.” Instead, while in Europe, he admired the cyclists, and the way they commingled so naturally with cars: elderly women on bicycles, young men riding to work in suits. But as Judy says, “He used to say if he could get rid of the cars on the road and go to bikes, he would.”
This year, on Aug. 13, shortly before he was set to retire, John was on his daily ride to work when he found the bike path he usually navigated was closed. John was forced onto the road, where he was struck by a beginner driver, and got caught under the vehicle. He died later in hospital at the age of 53.