Passings: Former Chancellor Avie Bennett remembered as ‘best spirit of York University’

Avie Bennett, the 10th chancellor of York University, will be remembered for many things: his philanthropy, his extraordinary dedication to higher education, and his enduring friendship and support, to highlight just a few.

Avie Bennett

The former chancellor, who served in that role at York University from 1998 to 2004, died on June 2. He was 89 years old.

Many members of the York community joined his family to celebrate his life on Sunday, June 4 at the Bennett Centre for Student Services located at the Keele campus – a facility named after Avie Bennett.

Lorna Marsden, former York University president who worked alongside Bennett, said the turnout for the reception was indicative of the “extraordinary person and wonderful friend” he was to so many.

“He was extraordinary in his generosity to York, and I don’t mean that in just a financial sense,” said Marsden, who continued a personal friendship with Bennett beyond her years as York University president. “He took a special interest in students, convocation ushers, faculty, staff members – everyone he met. He touched every part of the University.”

Bennett spent his years as chancellor being an engaged member of the community. Whether it was attending sports games, tree plantings or Board of Governor meetings, he consistently turned up for community-building events and activities. After retiring in 2004, Bennett continued to serve as Chancellor Emeritus and a member of the Board of Directors of the York University Foundation.

“As chancellor, and as an individual, Avie’s commitment to excellence, improved access to post-secondary education and social responsibility were unwavering. He had an unparalleled commitment to students and their wellbeing, and represented the best spirit of York University,” said York University President and Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri. “With the numerous Bennett Scholarships, he has left a legacy that will serve future students for years to come. Avie Bennett was kind, generous and humble. He will be greatly missed.”

The Avie Bennett Historica Chair in Canadian History was established at York University in 2004 by the Historica Foundation of Canada, endowed by Bennett for the purpose of promoting the study of Canada’s heritage and ensuring the academic vitality of the discipline.

Marsden notes that perhaps one of Bennett’s most far-reaching influences was at convocation, when he delivered a rousing speech that delighted the graduates and their families.

“He had one speech – it was a great speech – and he probably delivered it more than 20 times over the years,” said Marsden.

Outside of his service to York University, Bennett was known for his leadership of McClelland & Stewart Ltd., The Canadian Publishers; chair of the Historica Dominion Institute; and president of the International Readings at Harbourfront.

In 2004, he was appointed honorary chair of the Board of Trustees of the Art Gallery of Ontario and he was also promoted within the Order of Canada to the rank of Companion. He received the Order of Ontario in 1996.

In June 2004, Bennett was made a Doctor of Letters (D.Litt) at York University, and previously received a Doctor of University (D.U.) from the University of Ottawa in 1997 and a Doctor of Laws (LL.D) from the University of Toronto in 1995. In 2000, Bennett donated McClelland & Stewart to the University of Toronto, and that same year, he donated The Canadian Encyclopedia, electronic version, to the Historica Foundation of Toronto. In 2000, he was the co-chair of the Canadian Democracy and Corporate Accountability Commission.

Bennett was a member of many cultural, educational, and government agencies in the past, including The Premier’s Economic Council of Ontario, The National Ballet of Canada, the Schulich School of Business, and the United Way of Greater Toronto.

“Avie felt very comfortable at York. He was the direct opposite of an elitist and he had very high standards and was very interested in ordinary folks making their way through the world,” said Marsden. “He was a really amazing human being.”

Bennett is survived by his wife of 67 years, Beverly, his six children, Paul (Catherine Olsen), Robin (Alfredo Lizoain), Sara (Joseph Holmes), David (Krisztina Havas), Jane (Hidemi Kihira) and Richard (Paula Jeanine) and his 10 grandchildren, David, Marc, Luisa, Julian, Sophia, Noah, Malachi, Raphael, Niki and Jamie.

Funeral services were held on Sunday, June 4.

York University’s Division of Advancement has created an online giving page for donations to be made in memory of Avie Bennett here: