Saturday, October 3, 2015

Mourning the loss of a local friend and supporter of the arts in Niagara

The Donor Dedication and Season Launch planned by the Department of Music at Brock University this coming Monday evening at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts will be a bittersweet affair.  The woman who made the arts her life and whose name adorns the new arts school in the heart of the city she loved has passed away.

It was early yesterday morning as I was hurrying to get ready for an appointment in Hamilton that I heard the news on the radio:  Marilyn I. Walker left us on Thursday at the age of 80.  I stopped what I was doing and thought for a moment how she had touched my life and those of so many others with her talent and generosity over the years.

I never had the pleasure and honour of meeting Marilyn in person, although I attended countless concerts and events she also attended, and I could well imagine the lively conversations that would ensue when she was in the room.  Marilyn just had a love of life and especially the arts that knew no bounds, and was totally infectious.

It was her smile you noticed most, I think, as she clearly loved any activity that showcased the arts in general and her own art form in particular:  quilting.  In fact, she raised quilting to an art form, and was the author of Ontario Heritage Quilts, which won the Canadian Historical Association Award of Merit in 1992.

One of Marilyn's most elaborate quilts is now on display in the main lobby of the arts centre that bears her name, a gift she worked on tirelessly prior to the opening last month.  It is huge, detailed, and clearly the work of a master craftsperson.  If you have yet to see it, do make the effort the next time you are in the area, as it is magnificent.

Quilting was not her only love, of course.  She loved anything to do with the "arts and those who studied it.  Her vision was to find a way to bring culture into everyone's life," according to Derek Knight, director of the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts:  "I can't imagine a more thoughtful, compassionate person than Marilyn," he said in a statement, "she has changed all of our lives for the best."

Brock University President Jack Lightstone stated plainly her loss is one "that will never be replaced."  He said "Marilyn leaves a huge legacy for the University and for the whole community.  She not only altered Brock's ability to accelerate learning for future generations of students, she changed the course of history for the University and for the Niagara Region."

It was back in 2008, the same year Brock awarded her an honorary doctorate, she donated $15 million to the university in order to launch the funding for a downtown arts school that would benefit not only the university and its students, but the community at large as well.  "It was transformational" Lightstone said at the opening ceremonies just three weeks ago, and led the way towards gaining funding from other sources to build the arts school in the heart of downtown St. Catharines.

She knew that, of course, and I suspect she also knew if this project was ever to become a reality, she had to do her part to get the ball rolling so others could follow.  She did, and they did.  The rest is history in the making as another valuable infrastructure investment in our community is now open and in full use.

Marilyn was in poor health at the opening and did not make any public comments.  But you could see she was clearly elated when everyone gathered around her to cut the ribbon at the official opening.  There was that radiant smile again.  A knowing smile.  A smile that said to one and all, job well done.

So it is indeed bittersweet the season launch for the Department of Music in their new home at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts this coming Monday evening will go on without her.  But it will pay tribute to another generous donation made by another prominent Niagara family.

The performance, to be held in the Cairns Recital Hall at the adjacent FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, will also be the first public event at the arts centre as it nears completion this fall.

This performance will be the first to feature Brock's new Steinway D piano, purchased through donations by Art and Val Fleming.  Although Art himself passed away in 2014, Val remains an active member of the Brock community, and in fact a 75-seat lecture hall at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts is named in honour of the Fleming family's generosity.

The concert, scheduled to begin at 7:30 pm, features Music Chair Dr. Karin Di Bella, violinist Vera Alekseeva and cellist Gordon Cleland, and all proceeds will be donated to department of music student scholarships.

Tickets are only $15 each and are available at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre box office by calling 905-688-0722.

Marilyn would like the affordable ticket price, making it possible for music students to attend, and would love the fact by getting the ball rolling herself back in 2008, she paved the way for others to step up and make their contributions to the betterment of arts education in Niagara.

Monday's performance will be tinged with sadness, I'm sure.  But something tells me Marilyn's smile will not be far away, and she'd like everyone else who visits the arts school that now bears her name to smile, too.

That's just the way she was.

October 3rd, 2015.

No comments: