Jack Mackness, a founding member of Spearhead and coowner of the legendary leather bar the Toolbox, passed away after a battle with cancer on Dec 2, 2007 at the age of 76.
“He was one of the community’s elders,” says leatherman and friend David Adkin. “He was a true leader with a generous spirit.”
Born in 1931 Mackness grew up with his mother and siblings in Port Credit, Ontario. As the eldest son it fell to him to help support his family. He began working part-time at age 12, haying farms. By age 14 he was working full-time at the nearby IBM country club. He continued to work for the company until he retired at age 51.
Mackness married and had three children — Lorrie, Murray and Barbara — before divorcing his wife in the late 1960s. He remained close with his children and, later, grandchildren.
“He always made himself available to us,” says Lorrie Mackness. “He was a very energetic person, very supportive and always trying to make life better or a little more fun everywhere he went.”
In 1970 Mackness became one of the founding members of Spearhead Leather Denim Social Club, Canada’s longest-running leather organization.
“Jack was one of the 12 people that formed Spearhead 37 years ago,” says Spearhead president Ernie Wesley. “He really had been the heart and soul ever since.”
Wesley describes Mackness as a forceful presence and one who got things done. “Jack had character. He was the kind of person you could depend on. He was solid. He was there for you.”
He was also immensely caring. “If anyone was ever ill or anything he’d be at the hospital paying a visit,” says Rochon. “He was always caring, offering to help.
“He was for me almost a father figure as well. He had good shoulders for me to cry on from time to time. He was that caring of a man.”
In 1983 Mackness went to work bartending at the Toolbox, then at 18 Eastern Ave. In 1984 he became one of the coowners, along with Bob Saunders and Matt Shield, when the bar moved to 508 Eastern. His family was there to celebrate opening night.
“My oldest granddaughter was a babe in arms and had her diaper changed on the pool table,” Mackness told Xtra contributor Nancy Irwin in 2004.
Renowned for being good with his hands Mackness used his carpentry skills to build the Toolbox’s Yard bar. “I was the only patio bartender for the bar which was open Thursday to Sunday,” Mackness told Xtra. “When it was closed I put a sign up that said, ‘Jack off today.'”
Mackness was known for his sense of humour — “He was a real trickster,” says Wesley — and for his willingness to jump in and take action.
In Spearhead: 35 Years of Gay Toronto History author and researcher Martin Roebuck recounts an incident that illustrates Mackness’s willingness to leap into the breach.
“In its early years the AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT) rented a second floor office on Yonge St just north of Carlton,” writes Roebuck. “A steep set of stairs presented an almost insurmountable barrier to those people with AIDS who were suffering from resulting physical disabilities. The only way for them to reach the offices of those charged with helping them was on a rickety elevator whose only ground level door was open to the elements and was situation in a filthy alley.
“While others were arguing and blaming, a small group of Spearhead members led by handyman extraordinaire Jack Mackness decided to get something done. A work crew actually went round into the alley, cleaned up the debris and constructed a sturdy if temporary cover for the entrance. Those waiting to go up to the ACT office at least were given a better sense of dignity and a place to get out of the rain and snow.”
“There were just so many ways that he gave to the community to make sure that things happened,” says Adkin. “I never felt from Jack that he demanded a lot of attention for it. It wasn’t about ego, it wasn’t about appearing to be an important person. He just had this innate sense of this needs to be done and done properly and if no one else did he’d just step in and do it.”
On Nov 24, 2007 Mackness was honoured by Mr Leatherman Toronto (MLT) for his longtime volunteerism with a special lifetime achievement award, recognizing him “as one of the founders of Toronto’s modern-day leather community.”
“He was a very giving person, very concerned with the way the leather community was run,” says MLT producer and friend John Brodhagen. “He always had his hands in everything.”
“It was really one of the highlights of his life that MLT had recognized him for the work he had done over the years,” says Wesley. “He was really proud.”