Arrivederci Bella!

For over two decades, York has been the setting of a love story that began when a recent graduate came to work for the university she had come to adore. And like any great love story, the passion remains through each chapter, even though the direction of the plot may change.

Jessie-May Rowntree, (or JMR for short), director of account direction in the Communications Division at York University, is signing off on the final proofs of her love story today. After 21 years working in various communications functions for York University, Rowntree is moving on. In just a few days, she will be setting off on a four-week dream trip with her daughter to Italy and London and then she plans to think carefully before choosing the direction of the next chapter in her life.

Left, from left: Gord Bontoft and Jessie-May Rowntree at a farewell party on July 28

Will it be difficult for her? Perhaps, but the possibilities are endless, she says with a smile. “I’m leaving while my career is on a high note,” she said. “I have gone as far as I can go here and enjoyed every moment, but it is time to try something new.”

From York’s brand strategy, the repositioning of the University as an interdisciplinary, modern institution, the way-finding signage, to the recent subway campaign and the steering of York’s award-winning publications, Rowntree has been there to ensure the work was completed to perfection. Her hand can be seen in a host of York publications including early issues of the Atkinson Balloon and The Atkinsonian, the Gazette, Profiles magazine, the inaugural issue of YFile and most of the communications pieces that are sent to new students.

Right: The Spring 2002 issue of Profiles

“In my current role, as director of Account Direction and with my team, we are responsible for continuing to develop and drive York’s brand strategy and to bring consistency and coherence to the University’s marketing materials – it could be a brochure, Web site or anything that reflects the York University brand.

People used to do their own thing and it wasn’t consistent. When we introduced the brand strategy, we were really in the position to raise the standards of what we did. It has been a wise investment because it has positioned York differently. The University is at a point in its history where the environment is so much more competitive than it has ever been for students, for faculty, government dollars, fund raising and private giving. It is really important that York is seen by the external world as what we are, an excellent, forward-looking dynamic university that really delivers an interdisciplinary experience.”

Highlights of Rowntree’s career have been many, however, the most special and memorable was the President’s CPM Award which she received in 1999. “It was a validation of the passion that I felt for York and an acknowledgment of my work here.”

Left, from left: JMR and her team in account direction including Jennifer Wing, Lisa Webb, Clay Browne and Marissa Jones

“I have worked on so many different projects and they all have been highlights really, my career has been very dynamic. Perhaps one of the strangest things I’ve ever had to do was collect rocks…ramp rocks,” she chuckled. “When the podium ramp was being demolished during the construction of Vari Hall, we came up with the bright idea of doing something with ‘ramp rocks’. I went out with a basket and collected the chunks of concrete and lugged them back to the office. It seemed like a good idea at the time but I had second thoughts when I was carrying all that concrete back, we lost sight of the original purpose and there they sat in my office.

“I ended up using the rocks for the launch of York’s building program. Muddy York was our mascot for the program, and I had some wrapping paper made with Muddy York on it. I used the paper to wrap up the rocks and we attached a postcard invitation to the launch and couriered the rocks to the media and many of the reporters responded to the invitation. Rosemary Sexton, the society editor for The Globe and Mail mentioned that she had many rocks thrown at her during her career but this was the first time she had received a rock by courier,” she said.

Another memorable moment from the past reflects her current role as the safe guard of the York identity and the degree to which she will go to get the job done. One morning a request came from the construction crew building Vari Hall to check the crest and do the final approvals. After arriving at the site, Rowntree discovered that the foreman wanted her to climb the scaffolding in front of a crew of workers to check the crest at eye-level. “I was in a skirt and a suit jacket, I got over to the construction trailer and they pointed up, way up, and said the crest was up there. The scaffolding was quite high and I am not good with heights but they insisted that I needed to see it ‘up close and personal’. So I told the foreman to wait and I ran over to the York shop and purchased a pair of track pants. I pulled them on and up I went and signed off on the crest.”

York’s recent innovative subway campaign and the signage way-finding program are strong professional highlights for Rowntree. “Every time I look at the signage outside, I have such a good feeling. Signage had been such an issue on campus for a long time. The new signage, while translating the York brand, is also a terrific way-finding campaign.

Right, from left: Richard Fisher and Jessie-May Rowntree

“While I am moving on, York will forever be a part of me, as an alumnus [Rowntree has two degrees from York] and as an employee. I don’t see this as a good-bye, it is just a change in my relationship with York and I hope to continue in some capacity as a volunteer,” she said.

“There is so much here for people and it is so easy to overlook what a wonderful place York has been. For me, I love York because it has enriched my life. I met my husband, Gord Bontoft, here and was married on campus.

“It is a place where I could enjoy a science lecture or a free concert at lunch. Through York, my life has been a process of continuous study and working at the University has opened my mind to many different ideas.

“From the Canadian Writer’s series, the Brownbag Research seminars, to the Barbara Betcherman and Morris Katz lectures, I want people to know these things are here. I am the person I am today because of my York experience and the opportunities I have enjoyed here have expanded my mind. York is a great community with great people. But it is time to sign off and for the strong account direction team to carry on.”

Little known facts about Jessie-May Rowntree

  • She is related to H.L. Rowntree, the Ontario MPP who introduced the York Act to incorporate York University in 1959;
  • Her husband Gord Bontoft works in CNS;
  • She graduated with a BFA in creative writing in 1981 and earned a BA in English literature in 1984;
  • She received the President’s CPM Award in 1999;
  • She has two daughters, Nicole, who is 19-years-old, and Lindsay, who is 17-years-old. Nicole is studying fine arts and culture at York;
  • As a part of her role in account direction, she supervised the transformation of the St. George Subway station in downtown Toronto into a mini-York University campus in 2004;
  • She loves Italian leather shoes and plans to purchase as many as she can while in Italy,  including a pair in York red;
  • Max, her Border Collie-Labrador cross is particularly naughty and has made her late for work.

Comments from the York community

“Jessie-May Rowntree has made great contributions to York and will always be a ‘Yorkie’.”
Lorna R. Marsden (Left)
York’s President and Vice-Chancellor

“Jessie-May has been the backbone of this department for many years, we wish her well for the future.”
Richard Fisher
Chief Communications Officer

“My recollections of Jessie-May are of someone who was always willing to listen to her ‘clients’ in the Faculties and to try to accommodate their wishes within the standards that governed her operation. She was good-humoured in the face of howling Deans and regularly the source of good, commonsensical advice. I shall miss her.”
Robert Drummond
Dean, Faculty of the Arts

“With JMR leaving, I’m losing not just a wonderful professional mentor, but a friend I care about. Someone who is always interested in knowing what’s going on in my life – and remembers the tiniest details, even ones I’ve forgotten! She takes the time to get to know the people around her and genuinely cares. It’s been the foundation for this group of colleagues who have truly bonded with each other – the likes of which I’ve never seen. Always up for a laugh, she makes our workdays fun and always has our backs covered. I will miss her…and envy her future ‘workmates’.”
Lisa Webb
Account Direction

“There is far, more to Jessie-May than meets the eye. Over the 18 months that I have known her, Jessie-May has never failed to surprise me. She can remember the tiniest details about everything, both work and life-related, of those around her. She is a powerhouse in a boardroom, battling to defend the brand and her co-workers, but then can turn around and sing the praises of a really great warehouse sale she went to and how happy she was that she managed to find a new shade of nail polish! She rarely admits that she’s tired (but she MUST be!) except once when we found out she went to the casino for the entire night, returning home at 3am! She has a great sense of humour and a joy for life that is refreshing. She doesn’t overwhelm you with who she is, or what she likes; instead she allows it to seep out slowly, in tantalizing snippets. I’m glad I’ve been lucky enough to start to piece together all that Jessie-May is. I can’t wait to learn more.”
Jennifer Wing
Account Direction

“Jessie-May hired me when I had very little experience in publications. She has taught me so much about York, the print-publication process, and friendship. A person of great resource, I could always go to her no matter what the question or problem. I can’t imagine this department, let alone this University, without Jessie-May’s wisdom and insight, and her knowledge of York’s history. But I’m certain she’ll succeed in whatever she takes on as she moves to this next phase of her career. Jessie-May has been a wonderful mentor and friend to me, and I’ll always treasure those conversations about our funny and frustrating furry-friends, our dogs – my big Bailey and her devious and clever Max.”
Marie Kopf

“JMR has a memory like a steel trap. I have never met anyone who could pull names, facts and figures out of her head the way she could…for example: ‘Who was that guy in that picture who was wearing the blue suit with the striped tie standing beside the president at the Chancellor’s dinner…..Not the official dinner but the dinner that followed the two weeks after in and around the years 1989-90?’ She would know the answer. She will be missed.”
Clay Browne
Account Direction

“When I was considering coming to work at York University, I asked several of my colleagues at Sheridan College in Oakville what they knew about York. They all replied ‘Jessie-May Rowntree!’ The anecdotes were humorous, some highlighted quantities of beer and all were affectionate and praised the professionalism and the humanity of JMR. I discovered each tale was true when I came to York last November. She is a treasure, a tremendously capable professional and a terrific person.”
Jenny Pitt-Clark

“I’ve worked with JMR off and on over the years – mostly on Web-related committees and projects such as YFile and the York Events system. For me, JMR holds the dubious distinction as the person who has called my home more than any other York staffer. Over the years she called – at all hours – to post time-sensitive Web documents related to strikes, budgets and significant appointments. I may not have always been completely awake when she called, but I was conscious enough to be impressed by the degree of care and professionalism she put into her work.”
Rod Potter

“J-M (as I have called her for many years now) and I have worked on many institutional events together and have had quite a few laughs and holding-your-breath moments through ground breakings, building openings, special convocations for prime ministers and international stars, visits of royalty and citizens of the world, installations and good-byes for chancellors and presidents, and much more – it’s too much and too many years for an anecdote. Throughout those years I don’t think I have worked with anyone at York who has more loyalty and love of the institution than Jessie-May has.”
Sylvia Zingrone
Office of the President