Cultivating the ivy league

Margo Northey, the dean of the School of Business at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, had traveled to Nova Scotia in the winter of 1999 to solicit what she hoped would be a generous contribution from Donald Sobey for the school’s latest bricks-and-mortar fundraising drive. It seemed a good bet. Donald Sobey was not only the chair of Empire Company Ltd., the family holding company that controlled Sobeys, one of Canada’s most successful supermarket chains, but he was also a proud-to-be Queen’s business school grad.

Donald had been the first member of his immediate family to attend university. His father, Frank, the original self-made maker of the Sobey success story, dropped out of school in Grade 8. At the time Donald graduated high school in 1953, many selfmade business people still regarded effete degree-granting university business schools with more than a little, what-can-they-teachme skepticism.

But Donald’s Aunt Edith, who had “read that people who go to business schools seem to come out on top,” encouraged Donald’s interest. So too did Clyde Cameron, a family friend and brother of the legendary Nova Scotia industrialist R.B. Cameron. Clyde had attended Royal Military College in Kingston, and he suggested young Donald apply to its next-door neighbor, Queen’s, “the best business school in the country.”

When Donald arrived at what was then known as Queen’s School of Commerce and Administration in the fall of 1953, he was one of only two Nova Scotians among the whole university student body. He remembers attending his first lecture. “There were 45 of us in the class and the professor says to us, ‘Look to your left, look to your right. In four years, only one of you will be here.'” He chuckles. “There was some truth in what he said. There were only 15 in our graduating class.”

Donald’s academic success didn’t come easily either, especially because he’d gotten his public school education in rural Nova Scotia. “Ontario still had Grade 13 then. In Nova Scotia, we didn’t learn trigonometry or calculus. So I had to catch up, take extra courses.”

But in the end, Queen’s business school had been good to—and for—Donald Sobey. So when Northey came calling, Sobey was eager to give back. Still, he hesitated.

Sobeys was one of the few national companies in Canada headquartered in Nova Scotia. “If I gave to Queen’s,” he explains, “it would be at the expense of institutions in Atlantic Canada. There were lots of big companies with head offices in Ontario to give money to Queen’s. We’re a Nova Scotia company and we need to support our own universities.”

And yet…

The opportunity to travel to another province to attend university, to expand his personal horizons, had been a seminal experience in Donald Sobey’s young life. The same had been true for his son, Rob, who’d also graduated from Queen’s in 1988. Wasn’t it important to encourage young Atlantic Canadians to test themselves in the larger world and then, hopefully, perhaps return home one day to assume their role as the region’s future leaders?

What if?…

“Truman Mailman, please report to the principal’s office.” It was a late winter morning in 2000. When a slightly nervous Mailman showed up at the office at Sir John A. MacDonald High School in Tantallon, Nova Scotia, a few minutes later, he was handed a registered letter. The letter was from Queen’s University.

A self-described “farm boy from outside Chester,” Mailman was a good student who, thanks to his parents, knew the value of a good education and knew instinctively too that he wanted to get away from his home province—at least for a while—to pursue it.

A few months earlier, Mailman had discovered a poster, half hidden on a guidance counselor’s bulletin board, advertising a Sobey scholarship to Queen’s. “I’d never heard of Queen’s at the time,” he says now. But he knew all about Sobeys. During his high school years, he’d worked weekends at Sobeys Tantallon supermarket as a produce clerk in order to earn spending money.

Mailman didn’t finally open the envelope until he was safely back in biology class. The letter congratulated him on becoming one of four Atlantic Canadian high school students to win the 2000 D&R Sobey Atlantic Scholarship. The scholarship, the letter explained, was valued at $28,000— $7,000 a year for each of the four years of his undergraduate commerce degree.

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