Mary Alice Stuart (nee Burton), CM, O.Ont., BA, LLD, was a brilliant, accomplished, glamorous woman blessed with boundless energy. In a future age, she could easily have been the CEO of a major corporation or prime minister but within her own lifetime (she was born May 5th, 1928), women were not permitted to aspire to such heights. Indeed, females were taught that their main function was to be a wife and mother. This proved no difficulty for Mary Alice, who fell in love with Sandy Stuart, married him on the day she graduated from the U of T in 1949, and subsequently produced four offspring: Clayton, Alex, James and Andrew.
The lifestyle of a Toronto society matron was also predetermined in those days. Yet bridge parties and book clubs could only hold so much appeal for Mary Alice. What really interested her, perhaps because of her parents’ own charitable endeavours, was volunteer work. She was deeply driven not only to do the right thing but to make a thing right.
One of her first successes was in the late 1960s/early 1970s, helping the Junior Women’s Committee raise $650,000 to preserve and restore the original Art Gallery of Ontario at The Grange – a historic Georgian manor house and one of the oldest buildings in Toronto. She was also instrumental in bringing a major collection of Henry Moore sculptures to the newly expanded AGO. In 1974, the Premier of Ontario asked her to be chairman – Mary Alice always insisted on being called “chairman” – of a small, struggling Ryerson College (later University) radio station that broadcast distance educational programming along with a unique mix of jazz and classical music. She held that position for 21 years, turning CJRT-FM into an influential artistic powerhouse and establishing its PBS-style on-air fundraisers. The station’s long-distance educational aspect fell away with the rise of new technologies, but her idea of a specialized service stream paid for by its audience was prescient.
Mary Alice’s high profile and abilities, not to mention the broader societal push in the 1970s and 1980s for more women in leadership roles, led to her being offered a position on the Canadian board of household products manufacturer SC Johnson. When her son Andrew twitted her about her lack of housewifely skills, she shot back at him: “l may never have waxed a floor but neither have the other male directors.” She was astonished to receive a board salary. Now in her late forties, she told a friend “this is the first time I’ve ever been paid for anything in my life.” Mary Alice, alongside broadcaster Betty Kennedy (who, in 1976, became her aunt by marriage) was also an early female director of the Bank of Montreal. Another glass ceiling was seriously cracked when Mary Alice became the first female board director and, later, president of The Canadian Club, a preeminent public affairs podium that, up until 1982, only allowed “male British subjects over the age of 18” to be members.
In the late 1980s, she was approached by the president of the University of Toronto to spearhead a massive $100 million fundraising campaign for the institution. Mary Al agreed, with two stipulations: She required a car and driver, and wanted the right to smoke wherever she pleased (why Benson & Hedges never offered her a directorship is a mystery). “If you can promise that,” she said, “I’ll raise an extra $20 million.” They did and she more than fulfilled her word, corralling a total of $127 million – five times the amount raised by the university’s former campaign in the 1970s.
Her friend, Dick Thomson, then CEO and chair of the Toronto Dominion Bank, described Mary Alice’s domineering tactics when it came to fundraising. Back when she was running The Grange campaign, she pitched Thomson on his bank making a sizeable contribution. He politely turned her down, which should have been the end of it. “Well I’m not taking ‘no’ for an answer,” she told him. Stunned, Thomson replied: “Why not?” Whereupon Mary Alice went through her entire pitch again, line by line. “It was the forceful way she did it,” Thomson recalled. “She had a very nice way of telling people why they should do what she wanted them to do.” Needless to say, the bank capitulated and helped fund the restoration.
Leslie Smith, Mary Alice’s niece, shed further light on her aunt’s personality: “For someone who, until the last few years of her life, was a terrific talker, Mary Al’s best quality was the way she really listened to you, as if she were completely interested in what you had to say – which, surprisingly, she was. The people around her appeared to add to her vitality. Her interest in them made them interested in her, and in her many causes. Wherever she went, life seemed to take on a more vivid tone, a greater – to use the Burton family’s pet phrase – sense of urgency.”
Mary Alice Stuart died May 18, 2011, just after her 83rdbirthday, with Sandy, her loving husband of 62 years, and her children by her side. The newspaper obituaries totted up all her accomplishments: Chairman of CJRT (now Jazz.FM), the U of T’s $100 Million Breakthrough Campaign, the Restoration of the Grange (AGO) and the 1993 International Choral Festival; National co-chairman of the Governor General’s 1992 Cross-Canada Celebrations; first woman president of the Canadian Club of Toronto; director of Bank of Montreal, SC Johnson and Son, the Bata Shoe Museum and the National Ballet of Canada; Governor of Women’s College Hospital, Ryerson University, Massey Hall and Roy Thomson Hall; Trustee of the Canadian Museum of Civilization.
It’s quite a list – almost a mini-portrait of a woman who couldn’t say ‘no’ herself to any new challenge that came her way.
“In June 1980, Mum and Dad were in a serious car accident coming home from their farm. They were both rushed to hospital – I will never forget the call from Dad saying they thought Mum had broken her back as well as other serious injuries. He also had to have surgery and had major injuries.
“At the time of the accident, Mum had been asked to be part of jury in an inquiry – an inquest actually – into the death of a child at Sick Kids. The child had been vomiting uncontrollably, no one could figure out why. They started thinking it was psychological, so the nurses made him clean up his own vomit. He died – and it turned out he had had a twisted bowel. Anyway, the inquiry had been started before the accident. If Mum had not been able to continue, it would have been stopped – apparently you can't replace a juror on these things.
“Mum felt she absolutely had to continue. So, although she was in immense pain – 11 broken ribs, glass coming out of her face, which it did for months afterwards, plus knee surgery – she requested the Toronto General Hospital to move her every day on a stretcher from TGH to Sick Kids through the underground passage between the two hospitals. She attended every meeting of the inquiry. The jury's report was made and the hospital changed aspects of its care of patients because of it.
“This story made an immeasurable impact on the medical staff who looked after Mum at the end of her life. I have no doubt she would always have had good medical care. But her compassion and feeling for that young boy and tragedy and wrongness of his death, what drove her to the limit of her physical capacity to attend those inquest sessions, moved the staff even more than anything else she had done in her life.”