A Renaissance man

Universities tend to attract donations for the STEM faculties – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – with the liberal arts often left behind. That’s not the case at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., where the humanities benefit, too. Yesterday L. R. (Red) Wilson gave $2.5 million to extend for another five years the L. R. Wilson Institute for Canadian History he launched five years ago with a similar $2.5 million gift. Wilson served as chancellor of McMaster and has also given a $10-million lead donation for a new building, now under construction, that will house the humanities, social sciences and his beloved Institute.

I attended the announcement lunch yesterday along with members of McMaster’s administration and faculty, as well as friends of Wilson’s and friends of Canadian history in general. McMaster President Patrick Deane started his speech with a quote from Wilson’s citation when he was named an Officer in the Order of Canada. It says “he has been involved in many fund-raising activities and volunteers his time to help the community.” Deane called the statement a classic piece of understatement.

I first met Wilson in 1978 when he was deputy minister of industry and tourism for Ontario. I was at Maclean’s, working on an article that described the behind-the-scenes negotiations at the Calgary Stampede among Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Ontario Premier Bill Davis and Ford President Roy Bennett to secure government financial support for a $500-million Ford Motor Co. engine plant in Windsor, Ont. Even in the midst of such dealings, Wilson showed his lighter side, challenging me to discover his middle name (his full name is Lynton Ronald Wilson). When he was growing up in hard-scrabble Port Colborne, Ont., everyone had a nickname. His was Red, because of his red hair, and he’s been known as Red ever since.

After successful careers in the federal foreign service and provincial civil service, Wilson moved to the private sector where he held senior roles at various firms including Redpath Industries and BCE Inc. Wilson’s view of education is that everyone – whether they become medical doctors, engineers or business leaders – should have a grounding in the humanities as part of their understanding of the world and how it works. Unlike some people who hold views but do little about them, Wilson has put his money into the Wilson Institute’s seminars, scholarships, publishing prizes, post-doctoral fellows (a dozen so far) and adjunct members of faculty.

If there is a Renaissance man in Canada today, it is Red Wilson. With enrolments in the humanities down 15 per cent across the board at all Ontario universities, would that there were more supporters like him.




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