Kathleen Richardson was one of the first students to enrol in a school that was opened in Winnipeg in the late 1930s by British ballerinas Gweneth Lloyd and Betty Farrally.
Despite her passion for the dance, Ms. Richardson did not graduate to the professional stage. But she developed a deep love of the ballet, and of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet (RWB) which was founded by Ms. Lloyd and Ms. Farrally. Throughout her long life, she was one of its most prominent boosters, just as she championed so many of Winnipeg’s cultural endeavours.
“There was a little bit of her in every step, and every choreography, and every point shoe,” says André Lewis, the RWB’s artistic director and chief executive officer who was a longtime friend.
Kathleen Margaret Richardson, a businesswoman, a philanthropist, a community leader, and a beloved narrator of tales, died surrounded by friends and loved ones in Winnipeg on Sept. 14 at the age of 91.
Ms. Richardson, who was born in Winnipeg on May 5, 1928, to Muriel (née Sprague) and James Richardson, was a member of the family that owns James Richardson and Sons Ltd. (JRSL), a global agriculture and food-processing corporation. (Canadian Business magazine ranked the Richardson family as the ninth-wealthiest in the country last year, with assets of $6.55-billion.)
After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Manitoba, she served as a director for the family company, as well as of several others including Sun Life Assurance, Barclay’s Bank of Canada and Gulf Canada Ltd. at a time when women were rarities on corporate boards.
Ms. Richardson guided JRSL though the expansion of Pioneer Grain and helped its financial services operation transform into an international brokerage.
She was also a beloved mentor to family members.
“My favourite childhood memories are of the games Aunt Kathleen would organize for her nieces and nephews after family dinner parties at my grandmother’s house,” says Carolyn Hursh, the chairman of JRSL and Ms. Richardson’s niece. “My aunt had a vivid imagination and she was a fabulous storyteller. “
She excelled at ping pong and engaged in fierce matches with her great-nephews on the dining room table at her cottage on Lake of the Woods.
Kathleen Ramsay, another niece who is also a former director of JRSL, recalls the expressions and gestures her aunt used to embellish her tales, and the artificially deep voice she would use to sing the Song of the Volga Boatmen.
But it was her quiet philanthropy and her enormous capacity for giving to her community that earned her the titles of officer of the Order of Canada and companion of the Order of Canada, officer of the Order of Manitoba, and her honorary Doctorate of Laws from the University of Manitoba.
Ms. Richardson’s parents fostered her love of the arts by registering her for ballet lessons at a young age. Family lore has it that she was too tall to become a dancer herself, so she devoted her life to helping others.
Early on, she saw the potential of a world-class ballet company in Winnipeg and what it could bring to the city. She led the fundraising campaign that built the ballet a permanent home, which opened in 1988.
Mr. Lewis said his first memory of Ms. Richardson is of her selling tickets to a fundraising event in the public area of a convention centre in the late 1970s.
She could have bought all the tickets herself and avoided public sales work, Mr. Lewis said. But that would not have been in the spirit of the occasion, he said. So “she pulled her sleeves back and sat at the table and tried to sell tickets to everybody.”
Ms. Richardson joined the RWB’s board of directors and served as its chair for many years.
“She was very humble, very quiet, and unassuming,” Mr. Lewis said. She was known around the RWB as the most famous anonymous donor because she made her donations without her name attached.
But the ballet was just one of her interests.
For much of the 1960s, she was a member of the national executive committee of the Pan-Am Games Society. Around the same time, she was a member of the Canada Council and the Manitoba Arts Council.
And in the ‘70s and early ‘80s she was a member of the board of the Institute for Research on Public Policy, and the advisory board of the Winnipeg Foundation.
Ms. Richardson was, for several years, the governor of the Stratford Shakespearean Festival, and a member of the board of the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
She was also one of four people appointed by Manitoba in 1992 to review the education province’s system, and she chaired the Manitoba Foundations Council from 1999 to 2001.
She believed strongly in a favourite saying of her mother’s, which was: “Unto whom much is given, much is required” and she contributed to many causes through the Kathleen M. Richardson Foundation, often anonymously.
Helping Winnipeg to develop culturally was her passion – one ingrained in her by her parents, who were the first family members to move to the city from Kingston, Ont., where JRSL was started.
When her mother died in 1973, Ms. Richardson had the family home in the heart of the city demolished and she donated 5.4 acres of land to establish Munson Park, which she had named after the original owner of the home rather than after her own family.
“Kathleen saw an opportunity to create something beautiful for the City of Winnipeg,” Ms. Hursh said. “I’m sure she derived pleasure every day thinking of people walking and playing in the spaces she played in as a child.”
Ms. Richardson was an intensely private woman who was devoted to her friends, her family and the organizations she believed in, Ms. Hursh said.
“Kathleen was kind, intelligent and generous. She had clear beliefs, strong opinions and a wonderful sense of humour,” she said.
“She was devoted to the city of Winnipeg and also to the country of Canada. Kathleen brought a national and international perspective to the community she loved best.”
Ms. Richardson, who was predeceased by her three siblings, never married. She was adored by her large family, according to Ms. Hursh, which included 12 nieces and nephews, 29 great-nieces and great-nephews, and 18 great-great nieces and nephews.