Of philanthropy, African justice and ‘the goon at the podium’


Above, left to right: Phoebe Asiyo, York Chancellor Avie J. Bennett and York President and Vice-Chancellor Lorna R. Marsden

The range of York’s honorary doctorate recipients is as broad as its student base. During the spring 2003 convocation ceremonies, honorary doctorates were given to 11 people who ranged from a determined African women’s rights proponent, a Six Nations chief and an author to a business school benefactor, an opera singer and a governor general.

In our continuing coverage, here’s a look at what three of the recipients said.

Ben Heppner (right, with Avie J. Bennett on the far right), one of Canada’s finest tenors, was given an honorary doctorate at the Faculty of Arts II ceremony. Heppner is acclaimed around the world for his beautiful voice, intelligent musicianship and sparkling dramatic sense — and it should be added that he is also a man with a great sense of humour.

Heppner immediately livened up the audience by suggesting they might be wondering “how long is the goon at the podium going to drone on?” His answer: “Well, fortunately for you, although I may be the bearer of a Wagnerian-sized voice, I am the bearer of a five-minute attention span. So relax, you’ll be throwing your caps into the air soon!”

Heppner turned to the more serious issue of the graduating class’s future by offering “a few principles to live by.” The main one, he emphasized, is for students to find their own voice – not a singing voice, he quipped, but “your unique contribution to those around you at home, work and in your community.”

Heppner suggested three things were indispensible to making this happen. “Being passionate about one particular area is crucial to making the most of your knowledge and training.”  Next on Heppner’s “essentials” list was “substance.” “Without content, your passion will be written off as hot air or fanaticism. Naturally, this is where your excellent education from York University comes in! More than that is your commitment to your learning – to being the best you can be in your chosen profession and especially in your personal lives.”

Lastly, Heppner advised students to have integrity. “Imagine the difference that could be made if the graduating class of 2003 had the courage to live with such integrity – using your gifts and abilities to help others as well as yourself. The results would be the stuff of dreams.”

Phoebe Asiyo (left), an outspoken advocate in the fight for women’s rights in Kenya, Chair of the Kenyan’s Women’s Political Caucus and a member of the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission, received her honorary doctorate at the Faculty of Education II ceremony.

Asiyo didn’t mince words. She highlighted the status of women in Africa today in all walks of life and the various forms of oppression they recognize, from domestic violence, rape and female genital mutilation to forced/early marriage, denial of educational opportunities and denial of property and economic rights.

“Perhaps the most significant social phenomenon in the 20th century was the global women’s movement emanating from their deep consciousness about civil rights, human rights, women’s rights and self-determination,” said Asiyo. “This movement has continued to empower African women to recognize and tackle their oppression.”

Asiyo spoke of the long, hard road women in Africa have trudged along and the casualties suffered along the way. “The pioneering and unsung African women who dared to dream about, affirm and endorse the human rights of women, including gender equality in matters of citizenship, personal law, political and social rights, did so under extreme duress.”

She urged her “brothers and sisters of the north” to seek a continued stand in solidarity with the African peoples and to provide Africa with more support through “human-friendly development policies and processes”.

“Distinguished colleagues, as I stand at this podium to receive this honorary doctor of laws degree, I do so, not only as Phoebe Asiyo, but also as a representative of all people who stand in defence of women’s human rights, good governance and democracy,” said Asiyo. “I do so on behalf of all women of Africa who have never given up the dream and who hope that some day they, too, will talk in true liberty and justice.”

Helen Vari (right, with Lorna R. Marsden on the left) is a dedicated philanthropist, former member of York’s Board of Governors and, currently, honorary member of the board. She has helped bring numerous scholarships and building projects – Vari Hall, for instance – to the University, and was an honorary doctorate recipient at the Faculty of Arts III ceremony.

Vari welcomed the presence of Michelle Majcen, an “outstanding student” who was the first recipient of the Helen Vari Award for Excellence and Good Citizenship, and the Hon. James Bartleman, lieutenant governor of Ontario.

In a mock confession, saying she was a “bad student” who felt she was studying to please her parents, Vari advised the students seated before her to understand that “studying is not for your parents, but only for yourself and your future.”

Vari gave her perspective as the longest-serving York board member. “I always emphasized, and it is the philosophy of the board, that…in essence, all the intellectual and material riches of York University should serve only one purpose: the interest and well-being of our students, to make their life richer intellectually, and to provide the best possible learning, recreational and living conditions for our students.

“Look around you and you can see all the new buildings going up, the efforts we have made, with the help of our governments, giving you the best possible environment in which to learn, work and live,” said Vari, mentioning several under construction on the Keele campus.

Vari also shared a personal story with the audience about the days when she and her husband, George, emigrated to Canada from Hungary “many years ago during a difficult time in history. We had $2 in our pockets. But we had a wealth of education and dreams for a better future…. By using what we had learned, focusing on what is possible and working very hard, this wonderland Canada gave us opportunity to achieve our goals and fulfill our dreams.”

“Vari’s words of advice, some of it humorous, were for the graduands to “be good alumni” and not forget their alma mater. “Remember to share your success with Ontario, with Canada and with York University…. I hope that one day you will donate buildings like Vari Hall, or perhaps even bigger. Well, maybe not bigger!”