Mentors in music, science – and life

A jazz great communicated through his music, a cancer researcher quoted from the musings of adventurer Sir Edmund Hillary and the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, and a self-made businessman imparted his message simply and directly through the story of his life.

York University honorary doctorate recipients Dave Brubeck, Dr. Tak Wah Mak and Saul Feldberg delivered their convocation addresses to York’s class of 2004, providing inspiration in a variety of unique ways. Here are some highlights from their speeches.

Dave Brubeck

An international jazz icon, Dave Brubeck has been making beautiful music since the 1950s. His famed quartet produced the hit Take Five, a classic jazz tune that climbed the pop charts in the late 1950s and became the theme for countless television and radio shows.

Right: From left, Chancellor Peter deCarteret Cory and Dave Brubeck

Over his long career, Brubeck has performed with such greats as Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan. He has recorded with Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Rushing and Carmen McRae.

At 84, Brubeck continues to compose and perform; he celebrated his 80th birthday with the London Symphony Orchestra. To date, Brubeck’s discography features contributions to over 180 albums.

Brubeck elected to perform his convocation speech. He chose two musical selections to communicate his delight and emotion at receiving an honorary doctorate.

Left: Dave Brubeck on piano and his son Matthew on cello

At the ceremony for the Faculty of Fine Arts on June 17, he gave the audience and graduating students the gift of an unforgettable performance. Seated on stage at the piano in his ceremonial robe, with his son Matthew, a graduate student in music in the Faculty of Fine Arts, Brubeck delivered a robust and magnetic performance of Duke Ellington’s Take The A Train.

Following his number, Brubeck stood, acknowledged the thunderous applause and then dedicated a performance of his brother Howard Brubeck’s Theme for June to the graduates. “I would like to dedicate this tune to all of the new graduates, it is called Theme for June and June is the time that they will move out and try and bring peace to our world,” said Brubeck. “I wish for them all the success that I know they will have.”

Then father and son brought down the house. The younger Brubeck, a cellist, classical musician and jazz performer of international renown, appeared to share his father’s delight with the opportunity to perform. The chemistry, clearly evident between father and son, provided fertile ground for improvisation and the pair thrilled the audience.

“Mr. Chancellor, as you very well know, we have witnessed some wonderful and inspiring messages given by the various honorary doctorates,” said Philip Silver, dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts, in his thanks following the performance. “Today we have seen that wonderful and inspiring messages can be delivered through the fine arts…. Doctor Brubeck you illustrated that brilliantly to us today through these two pieces.”

Dr. Tak Wah Mak

The heart of cancer research today revolves around understanding how the regulatory systems in the human body which control cell death go wrong.

Left: From left, Chancellor Peter deCarteret Cory, Dr. Tak Wah Mak and Lorna R. Marsden, president & vice-chancellor

Unchecked cell death is the root cause of cancer. At any given moment, the human body creates millions of new cells, while just as many die; this process is called apoptosis. This biological ebb and flow and the crucial balance that must be maintained between the two processes is the focal point of the ground-breaking research by Dr. Tak Wah Mak, Canada Research Chair in Inflammation Responses and Traumatic Injury at the University of Toronto. Mak has shed new light on why apoptosis goes wrong and his research has created a new understanding of T cells, the essential warrior cells that lie at the heart of the body’s immune system response. His research has led to critical discoveries in determining which genes are responsible for the function of T cells and their role in cancer.

Mak was conferred with an honorary doctorate at the convocation ceremonies for the Faculty of Pure & Applied Science, which took place on June 16. He delivered a passionate speech, drawing from authors, adventurers and philosophers and urged graduates to continue to dream and not be swayed from their passion for science.

“No matter what direction you choose, the superior science education you received here at York University will stand you in good stead. It has primed you to appreciate the beauty of nature and has taught you the laws of matter,” said Mak. “You have been well-prepared, whether your calling is to teach and shape young minds, or explore the endless frontiers of science, be it biology, chemistry, physics, environmental sciences, kinesiological or health sciences.

“While it may be obvious why Canada needs more good science teachers, some may question why we need more good scientists. Indeed, why pursue basic science inquiries at all, in a world where there are so many pressing practical problems to be solved?” said Mak. “Sir Edmund Hillary would answer: ‘Because they are there.’  Many scientists are driven by a simple passion to dissect the mysteries of nature, just to find out how the universe works.

“Graduates, you are the tomorrow of Canada. Have faith in your ability to influence your own destiny, and rediscover the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit of the pioneers of our country. Do not dismiss your ability as an individual to influence the course of events. Have the courage to confront injustice and stand by your principles, and do not lose your idealism. Be prepared to pay the high cost of defending the truth, and make that truth your guiding inner voice.”

Mak concluded his speech to graduates with “a plan for success summarized in a quote from the very wise, if not scientific, Mahatma Gandhi: ‘The things that will destroy us are: politics without principle; pleasure without conscience; wealth without work; knowledge without character; business without morality; science without humanity; and worship without sacrifice’.”

Saul Feldberg

The Downsview-based Global Group of Companies is a world leader in contract office furniture. Its founder, Saul Feldberg, has imbued the corporation with warmth, style and entrepreneurial spirit which is reflected in the exemplary working environment his employees enjoy. Feldberg started making office furniture in 1966.

Right: Saul Feldberg

The key company controlled by Global, the Teknion Corporation, has pioneered the development of ergonomic furniture and has won over 50 design awards. Teknion is now the fifth-largest furniture manufacturer in North America, with annual sales of more than $1.5 billion.

As a child, the Polish-born Feldberg experienced the tragedy of the Holocaust. It shaped his life and values. In addition to being a highly ethical entrepreneur, Feldberg is also a philanthropist. Remembering the hardship he endured during the Holocaust, he shares his wealth with more than 30 different charities.

In his address to the graduates of the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies on June 15, Feldberg drew from the lessons he learned from his life. “As a young man of 17, I came to Canada with my parents and a younger brother. We arrived without any money or means of existence. My desire for a higher education had to be put on the back burner. In those days there was no assistance program for students, so I had to go to work to contribute to my family’s income,” he said.

With few skills and a limited command of English, Feldberg found work in a furniture factory earning just $30 a week. He endured difficult working conditions and degrading treatment from the owners of the company. “I was very unhappy and at that time I made a promise to myself that if, one day, I became successful in business I would treat people with respect and understanding; just the same way that I would have liked to have been treated.”

It was a promise that he kept. Over the years he learned everything he could about the business with tenacity and dedication. Eventually he had an opportunity to start his own business, Global, which he incorporated in 1966. When the company became profitable, he remembered the promise he had made to himself. “I wanted a better life for my people and I began by instituting a profit-sharing plan followed by a full package of benefits for them and their families,” he said. “We built a culture of mutual respect, trust and appreciation with all of our employees. We take pride in the fact that we never had any layoffs in 38 years in business. We call ourselves the Global Family and it really has that meaning in every sense of the word. As a result of this relationship, we still have some of the original pioneers from 1966 working for the company.

“Today we are a large company, the eighth largest in the world in our industry, with manufacturing and distribution facilities in many different countries and employing thousands of people,” said Feldberg. “It gives us great pleasure to give back to society by contributing to many charities, including hospitals, children’s institutions, mentally and physically challenged people, scholarships, and many other needy causes.”

He then imparted his secrets of success to the graduates, “Treat your fellow men and women the way you would like to be treated. Be honest because your word is your bond. Build up confidence and trust. This is the most important thing. If you betray that trust, nothing can buy it back. We live in a great country, with endless opportunities. Your life is ahead of you and with hard work and determination you can achieve the impossible.”