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Doreen McKenzie Sanders, photographed in her early 20s, had watched her mother do domestic chores over and over, realizing early on that earning her own living was the only way she could hope to be equal to men.Courtesy of the Family/The Globe and Mail

Doreen McKenzie Sanders's mother once confided that her one great regret in life was that she never had a career. The admission both shocked the daughter and made her realize why she had such a strong resolve to become a successful career woman, dependent on no one.

As a girl, she had watched her mother do domestic chores over and over, making breakfast, clearing up, getting dinner on the table. Expectations were circumscribed for young ladies of a certain class back then: grow up, get married and have children.

But Ms. McKenzie Sanders, who died in Vancouver on Remembrance Day at the age of 96, bucked those expectations. She knew early on that earning her own living was the only way she could hope to be equal to men and that knowledge shaped her life, she wrote in her self-published memoir, Things I Haven't Told You. "The self-confidence that comes from knowing you can support yourself is empowering."

And what a life it was, full of battles and dealing with men in a world of business at a time when women were supposed to be seen and not heard. Only 17 when she got her first job in journalism – writing a frothy column called "Debutante's Diary" for the Vancouver Province – she would go on to become a mentor, role model and cheerleader for generations of women who came after.

A tiny woman with a penchant for Scotch and well-cut clothes, she was 41 – a wife and mother of two sons, including one who was severely disabled – when she graduated with an honours BA in journalism from the University of Western Ontario.

Unlike the program's other students, who wanted to specialize in beats such as politics or sports, Ms. McKenzie Sanders opted on business journalism. She discerned that was where the power was, so that was where she wanted to be and where she was qualified to be.

Her first job as a business journalist was as the assistant editor for the newly minted Business Quarterly magazine published by Western's school of business. Modelled on the Harvard Business Review, it had been launched in 1933 as The Commerce Journal but had been remade to reflect the times. It was supposed to be sparkling and highbrow, having a male-only readership when she was brought on, but under her stewardship became a must-read for anyone in the business sector in Canada and beyond.

In the early 1960s "there were no women on faculty; even more astonishing, no female students," she matter-of-factly recalled in her memoir. "It was not until 1973 that 13 women graduated with either an [honours degree in business administration] or MBA."

For the first edition, it was suggested that she sign her name on the magazine's masthead with the initial "D," as opposed to "Doreen," to counter fears that if people knew a woman was editing the magazine, it would lose credibility with its target audience. But for Ms. McKenzie Sanders, it would be "Doreen" or nothing at all – the school acquiesced.

She would go on to publish and edit the Business Quarterly for 25 years, become the first woman to serve both as president of the Business Press Editors Association and as a board member of the Canadian Business Press Association. She taught magazine publishing at Western during the academic year, and during the summer at Harvard/Radcliffe, in Cambridge. In the late 1970s, her suggestion that the Business Quarterly start a "Women in Management" feature garnered vociferous protests from male colleagues, yet the feature was soon spun out into a newsletter of its own with a large circulation.

And in 2001, when she was 80 and supposedly retired in Vancouver, she created "Women in the Lead," a startup organization with the goal of publishing a national directory of Canadian women whose professional expertise and experience make them candidates for appointments to corporate boards. The first edition was published in 2002.

"She was that valued and persuasive," said Carol Stephenson, who in 2003 moved from the private sector to become the first female dean of Western's Richard Ivey School of Business, as it is now called. "I often try to imagine what it would have been like back half a century ago as she ensured that articles were of the highest standard. Sometimes, this little five-foot-tall woman had to tell male faculty members they had to make changes. She had so much tenacity.

"When I started as dean, the first call I got was from Doreen," continued Ms. Stephenson, who left the school in 2013. "She was so delighted that Ivey had appointed its first female dean, and she offered her encouragement and hard-won wisdom. I always felt that I couldn't let Doreen down."

Doreen McKenzie was born in Portland, Ore., on Jan. 17, 1921, the older by a decade of Herbert and Doris McKenzie's two daughters. At the time, her father was working in the U.S. for a Canadian bank. Her mother, Doris, who had been born in Mexico, had spent much of her childhood in Tennessee, so for the rest of her life she spoke in a Southern drawl, especially when employing her favourite phrase, "We'll worry about that tomorrow."

Soon after Doreen was born, the family moved to Vancouver, where Mr. McKenzie eventually took a job as head of an export sales company, which meant he was away for months at a time. They were a typical upper middle-class family, living in a series of comfortable homes with a back garden and front yard. Doreen and her sister attended Crofton House, a private girls' school located at the time in the city's West End, near Stanley Park.

At Crofton House, she met Kathleen "Bill" Taylor, the daughter of Austin Taylor, a Canadian mining magnate, philanthropist and race-horse developer and aficionado. They would become lifelong best friends; through the family, Doreen would be exposed to a world most people can only dream about. The knowledge enabled her to write the "Debutante's Diary," getting into the heads of girls who would be officially presented at chaperoned balls and luncheons.

In 1942, Ms. McKenzie married Bill Wood, a military pilot she met in Vancouver, and followed him out east as he travelled from one base to the next, training air force recruits how to fly. Two years later, she was pregnant and returned to Vancouver to give birth to Peter, a laughing little baby who grew up to become a technical whiz with a love of fast cars. The marriage would fall apart not long after the Second World War ended. She found herself a single parent, living in her parents' home as she worked in the Province's newsroom.

One day, she was assigned to interview Richard (Dick) Sanders, an alumnus of Western. He was known as the "Boy Mayor" of St. Thomas, Ont., because he was elected to the town's top job in his early 30s. They married and moved to St. Thomas with Peter, and she took the name McKenzie Sanders. In August, 1950, she gave birth to a severely disabled son they named Brook. She became immersed in Brook's care to the point that her husband begged her to find an outside interest.

Ms. McKenzie Sanders applied to Western's school of journalism. While the marriage to Mr. Sanders didn't last, the degree gave her a sense of self and an entrée into a world she would never leave again. In recognition of her leadership in the advancement of women in this country, Ms. McKenzie Sanders was invested as a member of the Order of Canada in 1987. In 2006, she received a Governor-General's Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case, which honoured Canadians who have advanced gender equality.

Liz Watson, a corporate governance consultant in Vancouver who was working in then B.C. premier Gordon Campbell's office 16 years ago when she met Ms. McKenzie Sanders, recalled setting up a shared computer hard drive when starting her own business so that the people working there would be able to access documents.

"The tech guys asked what I wanted the shared drive to be called and I just said 'Doreen,' " Ms. Watson recalled. "That's how it was for years. 'This is on Doreen,' people would say ... To us, it made sense because she was a resource."

Helen Kearns, a Toronto-based investment consultant and a former president of NASDAQ Canada, recalled Skyping with Ms. McKenzie Sanders most Sunday nights. "She never stopped," Ms. Kearns said. "The day she went into the hospital, she was editing a dragon boat newsletter with two others. 'Keep it young and fresh,' she told them."

Predeceased by her son Brook, Ms. McKenzie Sanders leaves her son Peter McKenzie Sanders, two grandsons and five great-grandchildren.

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