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Dr. Reva Gerstein speaks during the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party convention in Toronto in 1961.John Boyd/The Globe and Mail

When Reva Gerstein was a teenager, she practised long hours to become a concert pianist, limber fingers flying over the keys. But when she started listening to broadcasts on a short-wave radio built by one of her brothers – broadcasts that included hate-filled speeches by German Fuhrer Adolf Hitler, which she understood because she spoke the language – she decided she’d be better off doing something that helped people.

“One of my grandmother’s major life messages was that our society would not be judged or remembered for the size of its waterfronts or the height of its buildings,” her grandson Frank Gerstein said. “Instead, she said it would be remembered for how we treat the most vulnerable, disadvantaged people in it.”

To that end, Dr. Gerstein, who earned a doctorate in psychology at a time when a woman’s place was thought to be in the home, spent much of her life smashing through glass ceilings as she worked with children, with the marginalized and poor, with the homeless, with addicts and with people who suffered from serious mental-health issues, such as schizophrenia.

Her life was a series of firsts: the first child psychologist in Ontario’s public school system, the first female member of the province’s Committee on University Affairs, the first woman to sit at the table as a director of companies such as Maritime Life Insurance, McGraw-Hill Ryerson Publishing and International Nickel Ltd., or INCO, and, from 1992 to 1996, the first female chancellor of the University of Western Ontario (now known as Western University).

Known as Mimi to her family and friends, she was beautiful and wore fine clothes, and at times other activists weren’t quite sure what to make of this woman who professed to be fighting for them. Pat Capponi, the Parkdale-based psychiatric survivor who has agitated for years for patients to be treated with compassion, respect and dignity, recalled meeting Dr. Gerstein for the first time in 1983, after the latter had been appointed chair of then-mayor Art Eggleton’s task force on discharged psychiatric patients in the city.

“Basically, I freaked,” Ms. Capponi said. “I thought, ‘How is this person ever going to understand?’ And yet, she was so gracious and helped us gain credibility over the years – credibility for people on the street, for patients shoved into rooming houses and forgotten about. She was able to see beneath the anger and the poverty and she renewed my faith in human nature.”

Dr. Gerstein, who despite her numerous accomplishments was always adamant that she was not a “women’s libber” or activist but rather just who she was, died in Toronto on Jan. 6 from the inevitable complications of old age. She was 102 years old.

Paul Quinn, who first met her in 1989, the year she established the Gerstein Centre, a 24-hour crisis community-based mental-health crisis service, said she would come to speak to the staff, always exhorting them to be sure to listen to what the people in crisis were telling them.

“She stressed that we don’t decide for them what they want. They do,” said Mr. Quinn, the centre’s former executive director. “She also insisted that a third of the board members be psychiatric survivors so that the decisions it made were always informed by someone who could talk about how the issue affected them personally. In short, she was wonderful.”

Reva Appleby was born in Toronto on March 27, 1917, the oldest of David and Diana Appleby’s three children. Her father was in the import business but also dabbled in real estate and factory ownership, while her mother was a homemaker. Growing up in working-class Parkdale, there wasn’t a lot of money but the children never knew it, not in a home filled with books, music, lively Friday night Shabbat dinners and the father’s tales of business trips to Europe, which always seemed to be filled with adventures and life lessons. And the parents encouraged all their offspring to follow their passions, no matter where it led them – and no matter that their eldest was a girl, who might have been expected to marry, have children and settle for a quiet life in the shadow of her husband.

That was not to be. Indeed, in a 1980 profile of Dr. Gerstein in the Canadian Jewish News, she attributed her success to her father, who had died the year before. “He treated me as an equal,” she said. “I’ve never known the feeling of being uncomfortable as a woman.”

When she told her parents that piano was no longer her passion – that she wanted to do something more concrete to help people – they didn’t hesitate, not even a whit. They had faith that their daughter would excel in any endeavour, as long as she wanted to do it.

Besides, she never learned how to cook.

After graduating from Parkdale Collegiate, she got a bachelor of arts degree with honours from the University of Toronto in 1938 and a master of arts the following year, at the outset of the Second World War. She completed her PhD in 1945, just as the men were returning home from the front; despite her brilliance and the fact that she twice won the David Dunlap Award for excellence and proficiency, Dr. Gerstein, who had married Bertrand Gerstein in 1939, was passed over for a job. After all, she was a woman and she already had the first of her two sons, Irving (who would grow up to become a successful entrepreneur, Conservative Party fundraiser and Canadian senator).

She never looked back.

As Irving Gerstein outlined in his eulogy, in 1946, Dr. Gerstein was hired by the East York-Leaside Board of Health, becoming the first psychologist in the Ontario school system. In turn, that led to her meeting Dr. Clarence Hincks, the founder of the Canadian Mental Health Association and a job as the association’s national director of program planning.

Through this, she created “Mental Health Week” in Canada and began a weekly hour-long program on CBC radio that focused on mental health.

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Ms. Gerstein in 1977 when she was chairman of then-Conservative Leader Joe Clark's policy advisory council.Mike Ridewood/The Canadian Press

In the 1950s, Dr. Gerstein served as president of the National Council of Jewish Women and was the founding president of the Canadian Council of Children and Youth. In 1960, she was made a member of the Hall-Dennis Committee that, under the leadership of retired Supreme Court justice Emmett Hall, was to revamp Ontario’s education system, with a list of new goals and objectives.

From 1959 through 1962, she taught as a fellow at the newly formed York University and became a driving force behind the creation of Atkinson College, where students who worked during the day could attend classes at night, thus opening up opportunities for those who otherwise might not have been able to pursue a higher education.

As head of a committee setting out new policies for the baby-boomer generation and postsecondary education, in 1961, Dr. Gerstein presented its findings at the Ontario Progressive Conservative Leadership Convention that anointed John Robarts as head of the party and provincial premier. The next year, Mr. Robarts appointed her to serve on the Committee on University Affairs (CUA), where she worked closely with Bill Davis, then the minister of education.

In 1973, Mr. Davis, by then the Ontario premier, made her the committee’s chair.

At the same time, Dr. Gerstein spearheaded the creation of the Hincks Treatment Centre for Adolescents, named for her friend and mentor, which operates to this day under the aegis of Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children.

She was also heavily involved in an initiative that brought together street workers and agencies with traditional institutions such as hospitals and the police in order to brainstorm ways to deal with growing drug use among young people.

“My grandma covered the gamut,” Frank Gerstein said. “She never stopped.”

In 1970, Dr. Gerstein and her husband divorced. Nine years later, she married David Raitblat, who was in the scrap metal business.

Along the way, Dr. Gerstein collected a number of honours, including promotion in 1997 to the rank of companion of the Order of Canada, the country’s highest civilian honour. In 1988, she was awarded the Order of Ontario and she received honorary degrees from Western, Lakehead University, the University of Guelph, Queen’s University, York University and her alma mater, the University of Toronto.

Dr. Gerstein leaves her sons, Irving and Ira Gerstein, her daughters-in-law, Gail Smith and Lisa Zwig, six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

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