It was a gymnasium full of torch bearers!

Georgian College’s huge gymnasium played host to a model of united community strength this week. As I stood near the back of the room, it was like watching a microcosm of all of Barrie. Its musical leaders, knowledge leaders, business leaders, institution leaders, medical leaders, education leaders, industrial leaders… leaders from the past and leaders of the present and leaders of the future… they were all there.

And on the podium were the two reasons for the gatheriing … Helen and Arch Brown. This couple has embraced a unique and enduring way of enriching the community they chose to call home. The quick story centres itself in young Arch Brown from Bolton who started his working life with a car dealership, and sprang loose to join Canadian Tire. He anchored Canadian Tire in Barrie’s downtown for 12 years, moved into Barrie’s first mall in 1975, and grew the retail store to CTC’s biggest north of Toronto.

The retail biography could end there.

But it’s while Helen and Arch were caring for employees, raising a child, and building their own life that they chose to live outside of themselves and embrace the community at large. And, it didn’t begin with wealth. It began when they were young and struggling and intent on making a difference. It was a deliberate decision.

In 1972 when the Kempenfest arts and crafts festival was in its infancy, the Browns would thoughtfully walk among all the artisans and select a sculpture or a painting or garden piece and pay the artist and take it home. I well remember watching Arch wheel an enormous iron goose on a waving base of steel across the grass at Centennial Park. What did that purchase mean to that artist? Hope. Confirmation. The ability to pay that month’s rent, very likely.

They continued for their entire life together, selecting art, buying unique pieces generated by emerging jewellery students, by novice painters, by talented sculptors. By adding to their collection of art, the Browns were contributing solidly to the esteem, and the reality of a person’s vocation. They believed. They cared. And they bought.

This couple has always lived outside of themselves. They embrace each significant birthday or anniversary by making a significant public contribution… their 50th wedding anniversary saw the public gift of a piece of sculptor by reknowned Don Stuart. (see column #312 November 28, 2004). When Arch retired, he sourced a collection of original paintings by Shanty Bay native Lucius O’Brien and presented all of them to the permanent collection of the MacLaren Art Centre. Helen and Arch have, for 41 years, focussed much of their attention on the educational potential at Georgian College. For Helen, former teacher, this kind of support comes naturally. They have given generous financial donations to Georgian’s programs. Arch joined his muscle to the Massie muscle to help found the Canadian Automotive Institute, the most unique of its kind in the country. He and Helen have hosted inernational delegates to the institute. Arch has served in board of governor positions, joining established business acumen around the board room table. Together they have taken this college from its modest beginning in a unit at the Wellington Plaza to today’s state of the art, university partnered, medically entrenched mecca of learning and doing.

When they gave half a million dollars to the school of visual and design arts, their names figured prominently in the well equipped building that followed.

Recently Arch and Helen handed over a cheque for $1 million to Georgian and then Arch promptly joined a committee to explore facets of educational growth that would best serve the entire community.

And that’s what Tuesday was officially about… thanks to the Browns for the largest private donation ever in the college system across Canada. Their gift will initiate the Georgian Centre for Health and Wellness and it will be Georgian’s largest expansion project in 41 years. What will this mean on a local level? Better patient care. More patient care. The chance for nursing graduates to increase their education and not have to abandon young families to do so. This technology-enhanced building with leading-edge labs and teaching clinics will double Georgian’s enrollment in its health sciences field. It will also feed into the college’s nationally unique University Partnership Centre and continue Georgian’s reputation as an innovative, community-based centre for excellence.

Of course the college is giving suitable awards to Arch and Helen, to be added to dozens of awards, regional, provincial, national that they have already received. Perhaps the most treasured with be the two jewellery pieces presented by metalsmithing students Michel Alphonse and Hjoerdis Stockinger on Tuesday.

But Tuesday was important on so many more fronts. The audience sat shoulder to shoulder, leaders from the past, leaders from today and ringing the room with enthusiastic applause were Georgian students, among them leaders of tomorrow. It is significant to see how big things can be when the entire community, all elements, steps into the circle and participates in their best possible way.

Thanks Arch and Helen, of course. But thanks to those past presidents and board members, politicians, business owners, doctors, lawyers, leaders all, for being there in a show of support, AND for being there as a monument to strength!