Although Mary Alice Stuart would never have said it herself, there are plenty of people in this country who believe that Simpson's would still be flourishing if she had followed her father and uncle at the helm of the retail giant that once blanketed the country. Instead of entering the family firm, she married, reared four children, and turned her entrepreneurial and business skills into making a difference in her community, her province and her country.
Stuart, a fundraiser extraordinaire, broke the volunteer mould of be-hatted ladies sitting around a bridge table licking envelopes. She was the first woman to spearhead a major fundraising drive for her alma mater, the University of Toronto, exceeding the hundred-million-dollar goal in the process; an early female director, along with broadcaster Betty Kennedy, of Bank of Montreal; and the energetic long-time chair and CEO of radio station CJRT. She built its listening reach from 40 miles from the centre of Toronto to around the globe, and helped grow an audience that now numbers 450,000 listeners. "She didn't break the glass ceiling, she shattered it," Bernie Webber, chair of the board of what is now Jazz FM, said about Stuart who died on May 18th, at age 83.
Richard "Dick" Thomson, retired CEO and chair of Toronto Dominion Bank, experienced the Mary Alice Stuart fundraising approach in the early 1970s. She was heading up the committee to restore The Grange, the Georgian manor built by D'Arcy Boulton in 1817, which later became the headquarters of the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario).
After she had made her pitch and he had turned her down, she did something no supplicant had ever had the temerity to do: she told him she "wasn't taking no for an answer." Thomson was so surprised that he blurted, "Why not?" And she went through the entire proposal again, item by item. "It was the forceful way she did it," he said. "She had a very nice way of telling people why they should do what she wanted them to do. " He succumbed, the bank made a donation and the restoration of The Grange was a huge success.
And so it went, as the projects and the causes grew larger. CJRT-FM was a constant, beginning in the mid-1970s. When financial constraints forced Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, now a university, to relinquish its broadcast licence and dismantle the credit courses it had been offering on air to students in remote parts of the province, public consternation led Premier Bill Davis to introduce a bill in the legislature to establish an independent corporation to operate CJRT-FM. Stuart became the first chair of the corporation.
Like everything else she took on, Stuart approached CJRT-FM as a full-time job. There are those who say she never met a microphone she didn't love; certainly few, including Premier Davis, could resist Stuart's entreaties to join her in the broadcast booth, accompanied by a plate of oatmeal raisin cookies, to appeal for donations from listeners. Comparing CJRT-FM to the many large institutions and corporations that Stuart volunteered for, Webber said: "They would all exist if Mary Alice hadn't helped them, but [our] station wouldn't."
One success led to another opportunity. TD's Thomson had been pals with Sam Johnson (a member of S.C. Johnson, the firm that manufactures household products from furniture polish to glass cleaners) since both had been MBA students at Harvard. When Johnson was looking for a woman to appoint to the board of its Canadian operation, Thomson recommended Stuart. He still remembers Stuart phoning him in astonishment after her first director's cheque arrived in the mail, exclaiming, "this is the first time I've ever been paid for anything in my life."
When Stuart's son Andrew asked what she knew about the company, she retorted: "I may never have waxed a floor but neither have the other male directors." After a box of rainbow coloured Windex arrived, another bounty of sitting on the Johnson board, her offspring wondered what they would do with it all. "The glass ceiling is still there but we are going to make it so clear, you will be able to see right through it," was her prompt response.
Simpson's and its rival Eaton's are both defunct now, but there was a time when the two department chains anchored every major mall in towns across Canada. Eaton's was a family owned and managed firm until it went public in 1998, the year before it went bankrupt with Sears Canada subsequently acquiring its assets. Simpson's was a different story, although it met a similar end when Simpsons - the apostrophe had been dropped in 1972 to show solidarity with Québécois aspirations - was bought by the Hudson's Bay Company in 1978.
Robert Simpson, a Scottish-born merchant, had opened a dry goods store bearing his name in Newmarket, Ontario in 1858 and moved his family and his enterprise to Toronto in 1872. When he died suddenly in December, 1897, his widow sold the store to a syndicate formed by Joseph Flavelle, Harris Henry Fudger and Alfred Ernest Ames.
Unlike Eaton's, Simpson's quickly ceased to be a family-owned firm, although its glory years were associated with the Burton family, beginning with Charles Luther Burton, who worked as a bookkeeper for Fudger at his Fancy Goods Company, and gradually become a significant player there and in The Robert Simpson Company. In 1929, just before the stock market crash, Burton, with a group of investors, bought out Flavelle's shares and became president of the company. He managed it so well, especially its catalogue and mail-order business in a still largely rural country, that Simpson's survived the Depression handily.
C.L. Burton was succeeded by his eldest son, Edgar Gordon Burton, in 1948. He expanded the number of Simpson's stores and forged a profitable relationship with the Chicago-based Sears Roebuck Company in 1952, creating the Simpsons Sears catalogue operation and a series of Simpson's Sears stores across the country.
Mary Alice Burton, who was born in Toronto on May 5, 1928, was the eldest of E.G. Burton's four children. She grew up in a comfortable but not lavish household. When she was nine, she contracted rheumatic fever and was forced, according to the custom of the time, to spend more than a year in bed. Because her muscles had atrophied, she had to learn to walk again, which may explain her lifelong dislike of anything athletic and her equally pronounced determination. Instead of running and jumping, says her husband Alexander "Sandy" Stuart, she exercised her intellectual muscle by reading voraciously.
An excellent student, she went to Branksome Hall, a private girls' school, before enrolling in English language and literature at University College at the U of T. She graduated with the gold medal on June 4, 1949, the same day she married Stuart, a war veteran and a chemical engineer. They had met in the spring of 1946 in Eaton's of all places. Mary Alice and her mother Clayton (nee Callaway) Burton, a Georgia native who had met her husband after her family sent her north to attend the University of Toronto, were having lunch there. It was the only time in their lives that they ever set foot in the rival store, according to an oft-told family tale. Across the room, Mrs. Burton spotted Isobel Stuart, a member of her book club, and her attractive 20ish son. "I don't want to meet him," Mary Alice hissed to her mother. After a brief squabble, she relented. "All right, I'll meet him, but I won't marry him."
That was the beginning of a love affair and a partnership that lasted more than 60 years. He was an internationalist, an entrepreneur, and a principal in The Electrolyser Corporation (later Stuart Energy Systems, which subsequently merged with Hydrogenics), a firm he formed with his father to build hydrogen gas generating plants and fuelling stations as an alternative to carbon fuels.
She was a dedicated mother and homemaker with energy to burn in an era when succeeding her father's generation at Simpson's was not an option in her parents' minds, although it was in hers, according to her husband. "I think she would have been a great success," at Simpson's, he says. A consummate manager, she loved "rising to a challenge and the intensity of her rising to the challenge, inspired others." Stuart thinks his wife was intuitive like her father, seeing the solution and then working out how to get there, compared to his more scientific approach of working slowly through a problem to a conclusion.
Instead of the workaday corporate world, she became super Mom - she learned music notation so she could help her daughter learn to play the piano - and a big-time volunteer, while he "boomed around the world." The breakthrough of being on one board led to other invitations, especially in the 1980s when second-wave feminism was infiltrating corporate enclaves. Several of Stuart's male forebears had been president of The Canadian Club of Toronto, but until lawyer and travel guru George Butterfield became president in 1982 and revised the bylaws, membership was officially limited to male British subjects over the age of 18. She broke through two barriers, becoming a director and the first woman elected president of the club.
The U of T came calling in the late 1980s when George Connell was president of the university. He had wanted TD's Thomson and his brother Tom, an executive with Imperial Oil, to co-chair its hundred-million-dollar Breakthrough fundraising campaign, the largest in the country. Unwilling to take it on, Thomson recommended Stuart. "A woman was not exactly what they had in mind," he admitted, but Connell approached her, even though she didn't fit the typical profile - CEO of a large corporation - because of her reputation for surpassing expectations.
Before she agreed, she insisted on two things: She wanted a car and driver to chauffeur her to her calls around town, and she wanted the right to smoke when and wherever she pleased. "I need a cigarette to do my best work," she said, according to the eulogy her eldest son, Alexander Stuart, delivered at her funeral on Wednesday. She guaranteed the U of T that if they complied with her conditions, she would raise $20-million over the $100-million campaign goal.
She did that and more, bringing in $127-million, more than five times the amount raised in the prior campaign in the 1970s, according to Rob Prichard, who was incoming president of U of T in July 1990, and the "beneficiary" of her "extraordinary tenacity, absolute dedication to the University and vast network of relationships." He said she was "an exemplary campaign chair" who raised the standard for university fundraising campaigns across the country.
When Sonja Bata was first thinking about creating a shoe foundation in the late 1970s, she turned to Stuart for advice and help because "she was probably one of the persons I have respected most in my life. Whenever she started a project she was determined to see it through," Bata said, admitting that even she had thought Stuart was "utterly crazy" to think she could raise more than a hundred-million-dollars for the U of T. More than anything else, Bata trusted Stuart. "She was the type of person, no matter the time of day, you could call" and talk to in "a terribly frank way about good things and bad and get very honest advice" even if it wasn't always what Bata, an admitted dreamer, wanted to hear. Not only did Stuart help her friend, she went on the board of her foundation.
Her interests were as varied as her drive and her curiosity. These were constants until she suffered a bad fall abut six years ago, probably as a consequence of a series of tiny vascular strokes. Her recent memory and her ability to speak became impaired and eventually she needed full-time care in a nursing home. In mid-May, she contracted pneumonia exacerbated by congestive heart failure and was moved to Mount Sinai Hospital, where she died surrounded by her family.
Stuart leaves her husband, four children and nine grandchildren.
Editor's Note: The original newspaper version of this obituary and an earlier online version incorrectly stated the number of her children and grandchildren. This online version has been corrected.