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.