Gail Cook-Bennett revisits the past for lessons for the future

For economist Gail Cook-Bennett, the life story of a Scottish schoolboy has been a motivating force in her own life path.

The story, which she recounted to graduands of the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies during Spring Convocation ceremonies on Saturday, June 27, contained many lessons.

Cook-Bennett, an economist by training, has been called a trailblazer for her contributions to Canada and Canadian public and private sector business. She served for 10 years as the chair of the Canadian Pension Plan Board, and it was for these contributions that York University awarded her an honorary doctorate.

Left: Gail Cook-Bennett

In her address to graduands, she spoke about her father, W. H. Cook. Born in Scotland and raised on a ranch in Alberta, he had no formal schooling and yet went on to earn an undergraduate degree, a master’s and then a PhD in physical chemistry from California’s Stanford University. A mentor to postdoctoral fellows, a writer and researcher, Cook contributed to knowledge on the theoretical side through many research papers. He also mentored postdoctoral fellows from around the world. A member of the Royal Society of Canada, he gave a presidential address to the society on the foundations of DNA.

The elder Cook was also honoured with an Order of the British Empire for developing the idea of putting refrigeration units on merchant ships that were carrying army personnel to the battlefields during the Second World War.  

"To appreciate the power of the story and to draw any messages, we must look at his educational history," said Cook-Bennett. "By age 16, he had no formal further education, but he loved to dance and someone suggested that he enroll in an agricultural program so that he could attend school dances. He did so and a teacher saw his potential, gave him a job in the summer to finance himself for two years and on the completion of that program, encouraged him to go on to the University of Alberta.

"Focused initially on applied areas, he was intrigued by the graduate students in the lab where he worked as an assistant and subsequently he completed a master’s degree himself. His interest, support and success led him to Stanford to work under the best research scientist in his field," said Cook-Bennett. "That professor – again a mentor – was interested in the capacity of this young man and what he knew, not whether he had passed ‘X’ courses in the order outlined in the syllabus. What an impact that attitude must have had on a student who’s educational path was the antithesis of the ordinary."

The lesson for the graduates of 2009 in the story of W. H. Cook, said his daughter, lies in the power of several influences in this remarkable man’s life.

"Let me suggest the following, first seemingly small decisions can take one’s life into unexpected terrain," she said. "For this young man, the desire to interact with people and to go to school dances, led to a fundamental deviation from what could have been expected to be his life path as a rancher in Alberta.

"I certainly know that when I accepted my first invitation to serve on a board of directors 31 years ago, I thought of a directorship as an add-on to my main focus, I never expected to chair of Manulife Financial, or to have chaired board of the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board from the organization’s start-up until it reached the age of 10," said Cook-Bennett.

The story, she said, demonstrates the power of education to open up opportunities and horizons, and in this young man’s case, from a cowboy to a scientist and from ranching country to the world.

"Each of you has been stretched and had your horizons expanded over the last few years. Important as formal education is, we are all far more than our degrees. With your character, curiosity and your life experiences; you can and will leverage your formal education," said Cook-Bennett. "Many of you will, in a few years time, be performing activities not directly related to your academic pursuits, but your discipline and experiences will remain with you.

"I suspect that the practical, problem solving skills honed by that young boy on the ranch contributed to his having the idea, conviction and initiative to install refrigeration on those merchant ships. There is also the power of mentors in his life," she said. "One can mentor and be mentored at any age. You can ask for help and also reach out to others and assist. And finally, the foundations for all else that you do are your personal characteristics and underlying principles."

Cook-Bennett urged graduands to embrace the excitement of their lives, to seek help when they needed it and above all, enjoy the journey.  

To watch archived video of convocation ceremonies, click here. This speech is part of ceremony No. 8.