A Tribute to former Chancellor Richard Gwyn
The following is a tribute to Richard Gwyn written by Michael Higgins, former SJU President and Vice Chancellor (1999-2006). Gwyn was a journalist, long-time columnist at the Toronto Star newspaper, author, political commentator, and former SJU Chancellor (2002-2007), who passed away August 15, 2020, following a lengthy battle with Alzheimer's disease.
One of the most gratifying decisions I made as President of St. Jerome’s was to advance the recommendation of Richard Gwyn as our Chancellor. Finding someone to succeed John Sweeney, a longtime politician and former Cabinet Minister with high profile in the Ontario community and a man much loved in the K-W orbit, was not going to be an easy task.
I had known Richard remotely through his stellar work as a journalist, commentator, biographer, and media celebrity. I also knew him personally via shared friendship with editor, writer and then Master of Massey College, John Fraser; with anthropologist and cultural historian Margaret Visser; with economist and civil servant Peter Warrian (a distinguished SJU alumnus); many CBC colleagues; and the faith community at Newman Centre at the University of Toronto.
It was, however, when I shared a panel with Richard and philosophy professor and journalist Mark Kingwell on Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s Catholicism, at a conference on the life and thought of Trudeau at York University, that I discovered we had much in common.
No sooner was Richard installed as Chancellor than he began immediately to commit to a relentless campaign to highlight the strengths and vision of the St. Jerome’s university community. He was the inspiring motivator behind a conference on the spirituality of Trudeau that brought many high profile figures to our campus and that resulted in a book he co-edited with Trudeau’s official biographer, John English, and a young and promising historian recently hired at St. Jerome’s, P. Whitney Lackenbauer, with Whitney doing the lion’s share of the editing.
There were other projects Richard generated and saw to completion—an arts and spirituality conference that brought poets and novelists to St. Jerome’s, including Pier Gorgio Di Cicco, Dennis Bock, and J. S. Porter—as well as his sterling advocacy on our behalf as he secured a generous gift from the former Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario and past Chancellor of the University of Toronto, Hal Jackman, for our new Master in Catholic Thought program.
The University of Waterloo’s former President, Jim Downey, was full of admiration for Richard’s work as a biographer, and Jim’s successor, David Johnson, and UW Chancellor Mike Lazaridis were similarly impressed by the high profile Richard brought to SJU, and indirectly, to UW.
An accomplished writer, with many awards to his name and numerous honorary doctorates, Richard’s biographies of Joey Smallwood, Pierre Elliott Trudeau and his two-volume masterpiece on Sir John A. MacDonald, have earned him a respectable place in the Canadian coterie of biographers. His commentaries on TV Ontario, his column in "The Toronto Star", his national support of the liberal arts, his vigorous promotion of the fine arts, and his superb political instincts, combined to make him a Canadian treasure.
Educated at Stonyhurst and Sandhurst in England, with ancestral links to the Knights of Malta and to the 16th century Welsh martyr, his namesake St. Richard Gwyn, Richard’s own faith had a complex maturing illustrative of his inquisitive mind and independent questing.
But the tradition rooted him, his faith animated him, and his relationship to St. Jerome’s was defined by its creative fecundity and solid witness. He laboured tirelessly on behalf of the university, delighted in conversing with the faculty and learning of their research, and personally affirmed the staff whenever he could. He was collegial in every way. RIP
Former SJU President and Vice Chancellor (1999-2006)