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Celebrating a ‘walking’ legend, nurse and community volunteer

In this Journeys, we remember Nancy Steele, a longtime nurse at Guelph General who spent countless hours volunteering in town, but was best known by many as 'the walker'

Among family, friends and anyone who saw her around the city, Nancy Steele was known simply as “the walker."

For years the Guelph woman was seen getting her daily exercise on the sidewalks and paths of the city. 

“Nancy loved Guelph. She loved that she could get around everywhere, easily,” her husband, John, said.

“Friends would drive by and stop and talk to her as she was walking. They would see her all over the place.”

Walking three to four hours daily, Nancy was proud that in one year, her pedometer showed she had walked a distance equal to reaching the centre of the earth. 

Nancy passed away from scleroderma on March 6.

“After having three kids, Nancy started walking, everyday. She would have supper ready for us and then she would go for a walk. She was all about living healthy,” said John.

Nancy was also a longtime dedicated swimmer at Victor Davis and West End pools.

“Even this year, when she was starting to get sick, her doctor said that she would need open heart surgery next year to replace a valve. He said that her heart was strong and that she would survive it. And that all comes from her daily regimen of walking, swimming, and watching what she ate.”

Arriving in Guelph in 1963, Nancy graduated from the School of Nursing in 1966. 

She became a registered nurse and spent the next 44 years at Guelph General Hospital, working in the operating room, emergency and day surgery departments. She retired in 2010 at the age of 65. 

“Nancy’s mother was a nurse, and her grandfather was a doctor,” John said.

“She loved nursing, and she loved people. We’ve received many messages from her classmates who commented on her nursing and how good she was with people. Nancy always said that she didn’t like teaching anyone ‘how’ to be a nurse, but everyone said that she was a great teacher and mentor.”

Not known as one to sit still, Nancy continued to work at Surrey Street G.I. Clinic for another seven years before finally retiring in 2017. 

Throughout her adult life, Nancy was an avid volunteer in school libraries, as well as with a variety of local facilities including the River Run Centre, Guelph Civic Museum, McCrae House and the Evergreen Centre.  

“We had three children and Nancy always volunteered at their school libraries, mostly at King George Public School. Her nursing abilities came into the forefront there as well,” John said.

“Our oldest went on a school trip to Washington. I went along on that trip as a chaperone, and Nancy went as well as a chaperone/medical person. And that’s how she ended up going on all of these trips. Her medical career took her in all sorts of different directions.”

Nancy was born on May 29, 1945, in Perth, Ontario, to David and Helen Stewart.

“Nancy’s mother was a nurse. And she was actually her husband’s nurse in Montreal. That’s how they met. They married in 1941 and he died in 1957. Being a nurse, she went back to work, with four kids to support on her own,” John said.

“Nancy grew up in Hamilton. After she graduated from nursing, my aunt worked with Nancy in the operating room at the hospital. And I was kind of a blind date for her graduation. And then that was it. Just under two years later we got married, on the long weekend in May of 1968."

Nancy and John would have celebrated 55 years of marriage this year.

“She liked Hamilton, but she did not want to live there. I worked for Canada Trust, and they were going to transfer me to Hamilton. But Nancy said no."

So, the couple happily ended up settling in John’s hometown of Guelph.

“I am originally from Guelph. My great-great-grandfather is buried here. He came here in 1847 from Ireland. The whole family came to North America,” John said.

“We both loved Guelph and we first lived in an apartment. We used a pickup truck to move just down the street to our house. And we have been in that same house since 1970,” John said.

Nancy and John have three children, Mark, Marnie and David.

“When our kids married, we said that we went from three kids to six. And now, we have six grand kids too,” John said.

“They were all Nancy’s pride and joy. All of the kids and grandkids gravitated to her.”

Nancy's other passions included gardening and music.  As an adult, she completed her Level 8 Royal Conservatory piano, and subsequently, her Level 6 Royal Conservatory Flute.

“She played piano at home and began playing by ear. Alison MacNeil, who was the organist at Harcourt Memorial United Church, was her teacher and she would go to the church for her piano lessons. She persevered and got her Grade 8 and then she decided she was going to take up the flute.” John said.

“That was Nancy. She was always doing different things. I still have the piano and flute with me at home."

In the spring and summer months, when she wasn’t walking, Nancy could be found tending to her gardens or finding new plants at the local plant nurseries.

“Nancy loved gardening. She had a lot of perennials. And she loved dahlias. Some would grow to be four to five feet tall,” John said.

And as bright as her personality, Nancy’s bold red lipstick was her staple.

“We all know her for her red lipstick. She always wore it,” John said.

“Our second granddaughter, she wants one of nana’s lipsticks as a way to remember her.”

John says his wife was always known as a ‘people person’.

“She just loved everyone,” John said. “And they loved her," he said.

“People have written to me, who didn’t know her personally, but knew her to see her, saying that they had seen Nancy out walking. She was their inspiration to walk too.”