by Mary Ann Grant, OMAH History Committee

Credit – Special to the Orillia Packet and Times – Kate Grigg Jan 12, 2017 “Dad’s Diary includes tales worth telling”

The Orillia Museum of Art & History (OMAH) believes that it is important to acknowledge its supporters, those who have contributed to the culture and fabric of our community and to keeping our local history alive for future generations.

Today we celebrate Jean Sarjeant.

Jean has been a long-time stalwart member, supporter and promoter of the Simcoe County Historical Association (SCHA), the Orillia Historical Society (OHS) and OMAH. She has dedicated a big part of her life to promoting and preserving our local history. OMAH celebrates Jean’s many accomplishments and contributions that have so enriched the fabric of Orillia and contributed to success of OMAH over those years.

Simcoe County Historical Association  

When asked about Jean, Ted Duncan, OMAH Past President and President of the SCHA, summarized Jean’s life-time commitment to preserving our past:

“Jean Sarjeant has had a lifetime of protecting and recording the history of Orillia and the County of Simcoe.”

 “Jean and her husband were involved with the reorganization of the Simcoe County Historical Association in the 1970s. She served as secretary there for a number of years while she lived in Barrie.”

Orillia Historical Society

Jean was valued member and executive member of OHS for 20 years.

Ted Duncan stated, “Later when her family moved into Oro near Orillia, Jean joined the Orillia Historical Society, serving on their Board in a number of capacities, ending as President when that Society amalgamated with the Sir Sam Steele Art Gallery in 1999 to form the Orillia Museum of Art and History.”

OMAH Photo March 8, 2017 OMAH Exhibit ‘The Makers’ company Jacket from the Serjeant Company worn by Sarjeant

Preserving Artefacts and Archival Materials

Ted Duncan added, “Jean had a room in her basement full of donated artefacts and archival materials that became part of OMAH’s collection.”

Jean was heavily involved with other members of the OHS in 2009, the OHS artefacts were moved to the storage in the jail cells at OMAH in the Sir Samuel Steele Memorial Building. Prior to that she was also involved with cataloguing the items that were located in the Orillia Public Library and in member’s homes including Jean’s own home. This was a huge job that took a lot of coordination as there were thousands of items that had been acquired by the OHS. This was the start of OMAH’S collection.

Jean Presenting Sue Mulcahy with an OMAH Legacy Award

Credit: John Swartz -SUNOnline/Orillia

Stalwart Supporter of OMAH during the Good Times and the Difficult Times

In 1999, when the OHS was amalgamated with the art gallery at the Sir Samuel Steele building, and became OMAH, Jean was there. She went on to be a key supporter after the amalgamation and remains one to this very day.

Ted Duncan commented on Jean’s commitment during the great times and the hard times:

“She has served as a dedicated volunteer and Board member for OMAH in the years since amalgamation. Jean’s service and mentorship to the Museum especially during stressful, difficult times has ensured the success of OMAH as we see it today. I would like to thank Jean for her dedication and leadership.”

Dr. Richard Johnston also commented about Jean’s immeasurable dedication over the years:

“Jean was one of the “originals” during the challenging times when the Historical Society merged with the Art Gallery. The merger was a great success due in no small part because of Jean’s incredible enthusiasm and leadership.

For many years, Jean was at the vanguard of the Art Gallery and subsequently OMAH. Prior to the merger, Jean had been a very loyal member of the Historical Society for many years. Jean and Dave were always so welcoming to any new members, always making them feel so very welcome. With Jean on the OHS executive, the membership (numbers) thrived. 

When the Sir Sam Steele building was undergoing major renovations, Jean spent countless volunteer hours managing the gift shop directly across Peter Street.   

Kudos to the indomitable Jean Sarjeant and her countless volunteer hours at the Orillia Historical Society and OMAH!”



Jean’s role in the merger of the Sir Sam Steele Art Gallery and OHS and OMAH


Jean Presenting Sue Mulcahy with an OMAH Legacy Award

Credit: John Swartz -SUNOnline/Orillia

Jean played an instrumental role in the groundwork for the creation of the Sir Samuel Steele Art Gallery.

Don Ross commented on the important role Jean played:

Jean Sarjeant has been an inspiration to the Orillia Historical Society and to the Canadian Club that was extant for over 100 years, until it went under about year 2010.

After William Withrow retired from the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) he came to Orillia in 1992 on an invitation from the Canadian Club (a centenary group for women that lamentably collapsed in the late 1990s). He spoke of administering Ontario’s premier public gallery, at a time when Orillia was the only city over 20,000 population without one. His talk was an inspiration and gave us resolve that we could have a public gallery here. He suggested that a start-up art gallery depended on community women.

With a group of people such as Jean Sarjeant, Sue Mulcahy, Qennefer Browne, and Marilyn Dennis, who organized that talk, and who were also seminal in the Orillia Historical Society, the groundwork was set for the creation of the Sir Sam Steele Art Gallery.

A decade later the same group of community leaders had a major meeting of the Historical Society at the new auditorium of the OPP headquarters. At that meeting, Jean Sarjeant arranged for a vote of the members as to whether to merge with the Art Gallery group to have a joint purpose building on Peter Street for both art and history.”


Jean’s role in the merger of the Sir Samuel Art Gallery and OHS to OMAH

Don Ross: 

“About a year later, in 1998, Jean organized that positive vote to merge art and history in Orillia. She generated a joint membership list from which to enlist financial support for the first phase of the renovations of the Sir Sam Steele building. She headed the raising funds with the help of Richard Oatway, Dr. Dick Johnson, Don Ross and many others. Jean knew most of the people in Orillia who were likely to support both the history and arts in the city, and was steadfast, organized, and determined to reach the target of fundraising. With those funds raised from the community and memberships sold by Jean, the financial targets were surpassed in four instead of six months. Even over the next decade, Sarjeant was constantly volunteering and supplying critical impetus wherever and whenever needed. Without Jean we would simply not have an Orillia Museum of Art and History. 

Thank you, Jean, for uplifting us all and helping to create such a vital cultural hub in downtown Orillia.”

Jean Always There to Help

Jean with Ted Duncan and Ninette Gyorody at OMAH’s 20th Anniversary Celebration April 10, 2019

Credit: John Swartz -SUNOnline/Orillia

John Swartz, SUNonline Media, could not say enough about Jean’s support:

“I remember when Jean was stickhandling the operation of the Sir Sam Steele Gallery when the operation moved into the coach house behind Provenance Wine Bar and The Shadowbox. This was during the renovation to the main floor of the Sir Sam Steele building and during that period the gallery transitioned into the Orillia Museum of Art and History.

She was always helpful to make sure I got whatever information, photos or videos I needed. There was one time I stopped by to get some video and the coach house was closed. I don’t recall how I got a hold of Jean, but she did come and open it up so I could get in to get some footage. I think it was for the International Women’s Day Art Show.

Any other time I was at OMAH, especially for openings, she was usually near the door and ready to say hello, and often making sure I met the right people who would be beneficial for my journalistic purposes.”

Wrote a book about her father: The Secrets in the Chest: The Life of James Edward “Tiny” Small

Book Launch “Secrets in the Chest: The Life of James Edward ‘Tiny’ Small by Jean Sarjeant – Wednesday January 18, 2016

On January 18, 2016, OMAH held a book launch for the “Secret in the Chest: The Life of James Edward ‘Tiny’ Small,” written by Jean Sarjeant. It was a labour of love.

It is a wonder that Jean had time to chronicle the extraordinary life and contributions of her father, James Edward “Tiny” Small.

Kate Grigg, special to the Orillia Packet and Times, wrote a piece about Jean and her book. It was published on January 12, 2017:

“Jean Sarjeant, an ordinary woman with a not-so-ordinary ability to rise to the occasion, has written a book based on her father’s war diary, found hidden in the bottom of the chest.”

Jean saw the importance of the treasure trove of memories and experiences and of documenting for posterity the life of this extraordinary man. For ensuring that the old war chest containing the story of his hard beginnings, his dedication to his country serving in World War I and World War II and of his many accomplishments in his life despite that tough beginning.

If you wish to purchase ‘The Secrets in the Chest: The Life of James Edward “Tiny” Small,’ it is available for purchase at the OMAH Shop.


The Indomitable Jean Sarjeant  

Community Marks 100th Anniversary of the Clock Tower

Credit Orillia Packet and Times, May 25, 2015

Jean Swartz: “It’s difficult for any organization to find an ambassador like Jean, OMAH got lucky.”

Ninette Gyorody, OMAH Executive Director added: “As John Swartz put it, OMAH got lucky with Jean Sarjeant. 

Over the past ten years that I’ve worked with Jean, I have been continually impressed (sometimes jaw-droppingly so) by her knowledge, not just of the people, but also the businesses, the arts performances, and the details that she can include for the museum’s collection, both the objects and the archival materials. Plus, the stories…. she’s got stories! 

And, hands down, we just adore Jean. Any time she stops in at the museum, work stops so we can all go and say hi and catch up on the latest about her life. She always wishes she can come in to help more and we wish for that too, but Jean just stopping in for a quick word makes our day. 

Through the years, when working on exhibitions or collections projects, if someone was stumped about a historical detail, someone would say, ask Jean, she’ll help or she’ll know the answer. Jean epitomizes the meaning of community. She certainly embodies that, at and for OMAH.  

That’s says it in a nutshell. OMAH and all of the organizations she has been involved with have been so lucky to have Jean!

Jean has always been there, leading, helping out in many, many ways. She was there when the Sir Sam Steele Art Gallery and the OHS were amalgamated to become OMAH, when OMAH turned 20, when the Clock Tower turned 100. She has made an immeasurable mark on the preservation of our heritage.

Over forty years of dedication without waning and still going strong!

Thank You Jean!


Thank you to the following for their invaluable help with this tribute:

The Orillia Museum of Art & History – Ninette Gyorody

Dr. Richard Johnston

John Swartz – SUNonline/Orillia

Ted Duncan

Don Ross

Kate Grigg Former Feature Writer, Orillia Packet and Times

Wendy Hutchings – History of the Orillia Historical Society