It is not easy to describe Jill McLean Taylor in few words. She was a New Zealander who married an Irish man and made her home in America, a physical therapist who went back to school and earned her doctorate while raising three sons. She was the kind of professor who took calls from students at night and the kind of person who researched the women of her family, spurred on by five words in an obituary. She had a big smile, her friends and family recall, and a messy office.
On her gravestone in a quiet Edgartown burial ground, surrounded by a New Zealand flag, flowers, and engravings of a flightless Kiwi bird and a silver fern, the Maori word “harakoa” is etched below her name. Her husband, Harry Taylor, said it begins to hint at some of her many qualities: “Cheerful, educated, life of the party, interested in everything and everybody.”
Mrs. Taylor died on Oct. 23, 2010 at the age of 66, shortly after she was diagnosed with acute myloid leukemia. Soon afterward, her sons Alex, Tom and Will Taylor started a scholarship in her honor. It is called He Also Had Five Daughters: the Jill McLean Taylor Memorial Scholarship Fund, and it aims to honor Mrs. Taylor and her advocacy for social justice and equal education for women. The Simmons College scholarship would go to a female graduate of the Boston public school system.
The name of the scholarship comes from the last line of an obituary for Mrs. Taylor’s grandfather that ran in a New Zealand newspaper. The obituary “went on and on about his sons and their careers, and at the end, it said ‘by the way, Jack McLean also had five daughters,’” Harry Taylor said in early September at the Taylors’ home in Edgartown.
Mrs. Taylor picked up the story where the obituary stopped, doing research in New Zealand to fill in the details of her family tree. He Also Had Five Daughters was the title of a book she was working on about the McLean women.
“When our mother came up for sabbatical, she started going down [to New Zealand] for longer and longer times and digging in, so she had all these poster boards with family trees and these pictures of all these McLean women from the earlier 1900s,” Tom Taylor said. “She was writing chapters on the different women and what they had achieved . . . all these really colorful jobs.”
The men in her family were professional rugby players and journalists, and the women were largely defined by how they related to the men, he added. “But there was a whole other side and she was trying to dig that up.”
Now her sons have taken the mantle, filling hard drives with research and looking for information in her famously disorganized office. But their main focus is the scholarship, which winds together Mrs. Taylor’s passion for education, her family story and her sons’ desire to keep her memory alive.
Mrs. Taylor was born and raised in New Zealand; her father, a sports journalist, was knighted in 1997 for his contributions to journalism. During a trip to the states, Mrs. Taylor attended a rugby event in New York state. There Harry Taylor, a native of Belfast, was playing for the Boston Rugby Football Club.
The two knew one another for about six weeks before they married, Harry Taylor recalled. They were married for 41 years.
Mrs. Taylor was a physical therapist and taught childbirth classes “but always had bigger aspirations,” Harry Taylor said. She achieved them. She earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Massachusetts in Boston and then studied at Harvard University, where she earned a master’s degree and then a doctorate in education, human development and psychology.
For 20 years, she taught at Simmons College as an assistant professor in the education and human services department. She later became chairman of the gender and women’s studies program. In 1997, she co-authored a book, Between Voice and Silence: Women and Girls, Race and Relationships.
Just a few years ago, Mrs. Taylor helped to start the Boston Teachers Union School, a collaboration between Simmons and the teachers union. The school is run by teachers and not administrators.
“You see that reflected in our mission by the fact that our criteria for the scholarship is supposed to be a female grad of the Boston Public School system,” Will Taylor said. “It’s a dream of ours that we could get somebody from the BTU school to do it.”
The Taylor sons have navigated the complicated world of endowments and fundraising. Raising money was easy, at first, through reaching out to their mother’s friends. But now they find they are reaching a plateau, and they hope to widen their fundraising and reach the $100,000 threshold, the point at which it becomes a formal endowment. They have already raised $36,000.
Beyond a letter writing campaign, the sons have set up a web page (crowdrise.com/had5daughters).
The Taylors have also teamed up with Mrs. Taylor’s friends, some on the Vineyard.
Harry and Jill bought a home on South Summer street in 1986. Harry Taylor spends a good portion of the year on the Vineyard, and Mrs. Taylor had planned to write some of her book on the Island. On a September morning, the house was full of three generations of Taylors. The family dog, Clandeyboye — a gift from Jill to Harry —chewed on a tennis ball.
Jane Brewer, a longtime seasonal Vineyard resident, walked on the beach with Mrs. Taylor the day before her leukemia diagnosis. Mrs. Brewer described Mrs. Taylor as “a vital, fun, connected person . . . she was just immediately appealing and feisty,” she said. She named her youngest daughter Jill. Mrs. Brewer now volunteers once a week at the Boston Teachers Union School. “I feel very close to her in there,” she said.
Mrs. Taylor’s sons, she added, “are doing her proud every day.”
“She was my best friend,” Edgartown resident Chloe Nolan said, recalling Mrs. Taylor walking down South Summer street with her book bags and taking calls from her students at night. The two were neighbors and “fence friends.”
“Jill would stand there,” Ms. Nolan said, gesturing to the fence between their yards. “We would just cover our lives over the fence.”
“She loved her three boys,” she added. “They are very devoted to her. She had the fullest life of anyone I knew.”
From Jack McLean’s five daughters to Jill McLean Taylor’s three sons, the work continues.
“We all realize there are tons of scholarships out there which are trying to do the same thing,” Alex Taylor said. “I think in our mother’s case what was fairly unique was that she was a professor of women’s studies who only had boys and sort of was part of a pretty traditional old-world family.”
“She put herself back through school after having a degree in physical therapy,” he added. “She did that while my father was working and she was also responsible for most of what we did.”
“When we were growing up, I remember we all had this shirt that said ‘Simmons: not an all-girls school without men, an all-women’s college without boys,’” Tom Taylor said. “I would say to people proudly, ‘My mom’s a feminist and she wrote a book.’”
The charity work has provided “the most insight into a whole kind of side of her life that when we were young and doing our thing we weren’t really fully aware of,” he added. “I think that’s the most important thing,” Will Taylor said. The scholarship has been “a way of sort of keeping her in the conversation. And it’s completely worked. If we had to stop fundraising today, it absolutely worked to that end. We keep talking about mom.”