Gifts from the heart: Remembering Marlene James

By Ian McKechnie

Marlene James.

In most respects, the weekend of April 25-26, 1970, hardly differed from other spring weekends in Lindsay.

Shoppers headed downtown to patronize local businesses, children took advantage of the town’s many parks, and families looked forward to watching Tommy Hunter and Ed Sullivan on television come Sunday night.

As with most small towns, however, there always seemed to be something interesting afoot. History buffs flocked to Durham Street on Saturday, April 25, where a retired steam train had arrived in town courtesy of the Upper Canada Railway Society. Teenagers living east of the Scugog River were abuzz over the recent sod-turning for I.E. Weldon Secondary School, the town’s second high school, and the Beatles fans among them were still reeling from Paul McCartney’s recent decision to call it quits.

For one Lindsay family, that weekend is etched in their memory for very different reasons.

Sunday, April 26 saw a 13 year-old girl named Marlene James go cycling with a friend east of Lindsay. Venturing out around 2 p.m. the girls enjoyed a good three hours’ ride before returning to town. As they descended a hill on Hwy 36, Marlene was struck by a car and thrown from her bicycle. Severely injured, she was taken to Ross Memorial Hospital and then on to St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, where she succumbed the following day to brain damage.

Hours after her death, a surgical team led by Dr. Clare Baker and Dr. James Yao had transplanted Marlene’s heart into the body of Reverend Edward Madigan, an athletic-looking Roman Catholic priest who had suffered from heart trouble for seven years. It was Dr. Baker’s second successful heart transplant surgery, and among the first of its kind in Canada. Dr. Baker would go on to be appointed to the Order of Canada for his work in the field of cardiovascular medicine.

The story made headlines around the country. Readers of the Toronto Star, the Toronto Telegram, and the Canadian Churchman (a newspaper published by the Anglican Church of Canada) learned about the generosity of this 13 year-old Lindsay girl whose gift was changing lives.

“Heart of Lindsay girl donated that someone else might live,” was how the Lindsay Daily Post put it. Madigan wasn’t the only person whose life was transformed by Marlene James; her eyes would give sight to 31-year-old John Harwood of Sudbury and 49-year-old Doris Mullally of Burlington. Interviewed by the Telegram, Harwood said of Marlene, “She’ll always be an example to myself, my wife, and our three children.”

As it happened, Marlene James had taken a great interest in the cause of organ donation — and this was but one example of her personal dedication to the well-being of her community.

A devoted member of the Girl Guides, Marlene had earned her “friend to the handicapped” badge and learned to read Braille. She accompanied Emily Randall, a local senior with impaired vision, on walks to church, on errands, and to various social outings. Before her death, Marlene had taken up the challenge of learning and interpreting sign language so that she could communicate with the deaf and hard of hearing.

A faithful parishioner at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Lindsay, Marlene was active in Sunday school and took great interest in the younger children under her care in the church’s nursery. Musically talented, Marlene sang in the school choir and was an avid member of Central Senior School’s library club.

“She was beloved by pupils and teachers alike, and always had a smile for everyone,” eulogized the Post. Rev. David Lemon, minister at St. Paul’s, declared that Marlene’s gift was “an outstanding example of Christian love in our community and country.”

Fifty years after that tragic weekend, Marlene’s siblings want her to be remembered for how she gave back to her community — ultimately, by giving her heart and eyes to those who so desperately needed them.

“It was the way our parents raised us,” comments Philip James, Marlene’s oldest brother. “Service to community was the word of life.”

The late Harold and Florence James were active in the Scouting movement, and Philip remembers that his father always taught his children “to leave the campsite in better shape than you found it” — an illustration that captures Marlene’s character.

“I remember the joy of spending time with my big sister and the sorrow that the whole family felt with her death,” says Valerie James-Call, the youngest of Harold and Florence’s five children. “Reflecting back over the years, I can see the legacy of hope and possibility that not only changed my life but helped bring renewed life to others through organ donation.”

As spring comes upon us, a stroll through the park bearing Marlene’s name at the corner of Parkside Drive and Hwy 36 will reveal many a sign of new life — new life inspiring us to cultivate new ways of being human. At a time when “me, myself, and I” are the watchwords of contemporary culture, the story of Marlene James reminds us that “humble, caring, selfless, sharing” are the adjectives describing a life well lived.


  1. Janet Risebrough says:

    Thank you for this beautifully written story reminding us of the short but incredible life of Marlene James. If I heard about this 50 years ago I had forgotten. Marlene was a example of how even 13 year olds can serve their community. Thank you for putting her story out there again.

  2. Michele says:

    What a lovely ending to a tragic event.
    My heart goes out to this family. I lost my brother 33 years ago~the same weekend~his accident was Sunday, April 26, 1987
    The years don’t change the pain of a family changed forever.

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