Highlighting outstanding alumni
By Sophie Coupal
Whether it’s the wood-panelled walls of the Supreme Court, the hushed sounds of a piano studio, or the buzz of a hospital or a CEO’s office, the six recipients of the 2015 Alumni Association Awards of Excellence come from very different worlds.
Nevertheless, what they have in common is remarkable achievements and strong ties to the University of Ottawa, along with determination, daring, a taste for pushing limits and the desire to make things better, qualities that are part of the DNA — and highlighted in the new brand — of their alma mater.
On May 9, many of you will be there to applaud and chat with them when they receive their awards at the Defy the Conventional Gala, the culmination of Alumni Week 2015. For now, we invite you to get to know — or know more about — these six passionate, inspiring figures.
Gaye Moffett (BScN ’72; MEd ’91), recipient of the Award for Community Service, has guts and determination to spare. In January 1994, while still shaken up after losing her job in a nursing agency due to a reorganization, she had an epiphany: “I was driving home, I had a few tears, and then I thought ‘Wait a minute ... I know how to do this!’”
She was a single mother of two teens in her mid-40s but she decided to risk everything on her own strength of character and start over. Her job ended on January 25. On March 7, barely six weeks later, she opened GEM Health Care Services.
Today, GEM is one of the largest independent health care organizations in Canada and Moffett is very active in the community, dividing her time among ten or so non-profit organizations. She’s so busy that you wonder if she’s got a knack for being everywhere at once!
But for her hundreds of employees, 85% of whom are immigrants, Moffett is, in addition to being a kind soul, the one who first lent them a helping hand: “I run into people at the bank or on the street, and they tell me, ‘You gave me my first job in Canada. It was so wonderful, thank you!’” she says.
Ken Guarisco (BA ’77; Cert. ’83), recipient of the Commitment to the University award, knows better than anyone how important that first chance is. “Sometimes, success just boils down to that, to having that break in life,” he says.
Guarisco, one of the University football program’s most loyal supporters, feels that the sport was his chance. In May, he, along with the rest of the Gee-Gees’ legendary 1975 Vanier Cup-winning team, will be inducted into the Gee-Gees Football Hall of Fame.
Guarisco is grateful for the values of discipline, resilience and effort that he learned on the field and that he continues to apply as a financial planner and co-founder of Carleton Financial Services in Ottawa.
“I do not believe I would have had the success in life without the opportunity to play football at the University,” he says. “Anything I can do to help someone else have the same sort of break, the same launching pad as I did, is extremely gratifying to me.”
The idea that being successful means giving back comes up constantly in discussions with the recipients. It clearly is a pleasure for them to do so.
“I get a lot out of it when I meet students,” says Bernie Ashe (BAdm ’78), recipient of the Alumnus of the Year Award and CEO of the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group (OSEG).
If you were one of the 24,000 who were at the opening of TD Place last July 18 to cheer the return of CFL football to Ottawa, it’s Ashe and his team you should thank. The stadium in question is the centrepiece of a huge $500 million Lansdowne Park redevelopment project led by OSEG in partnership with the City of Ottawa.
An accomplished manager himself, Ashe says he’s blown away by the calibre of the students he meets through his involvement with the mentorship and CEO-in-residence programs at the Telfer School of Management.
“I look at them and I'm intimidated by the breadth of the experience they accumulated at the University, the trips that they've been on. They belong to societies, associations within the university, they're volunteering. I wasn't like that. When I was at the university, our idea of a big trip was to jump in a car and drive to the Quebec City Carnival. Those were fundays,” he says, laughing.
But in addition to the years of enjoyment, university also meant the start of a new chapter for him.
“My university degree at business school allowed me to transition from just a carefree guy to preparing for the stage,” he says. “Without it, I wouldn't be here.”
As with Ashe, the time that Dr. Mélanie Lacasse (BSc ʼ99; BA ʼ01; MD ʼ06), recipient of the Young Alumni Award, spent at the University of Ottawa was a watershed moment.
Less than 10 years out of medical school, Lacasse already has an impressive list of accomplishments. For example, the clinics she established to offer urgent care have helped more than 15,000 people in the Basse-Lièvre region find a family doctor.
And yet, the clinic is not what Lacasse mentions when asked which achievement she’s most proud of. “For me, just finishing my medicine program was a big accomplishment,” says Lacasse, who was in third year when she lost her mother to colon cancer. Three months later, a serious car accident left her spouse quadriplegic.
Lacasse gets emotional when she talks about how the University of Ottawa supported her through her trials, with the Faculty of Medicine even organizing the transfer of her spouse from the hospital in Montreal to Ottawa.
“Would another university have done what the University of Ottawa did for me? I don’t know — I have no experience. But I know that the University has a humanitarian vision and I want to pass on the same message,” she says.
Aline Chrétien, recipient of the Honorary Member of the Alumni Association distinction, has always known that she wanted to help people. It’s one of the things that drew her to her future husband years before he became prime minister of Canada.
“Jean said to me, ‘We’re going to help the world. You’re going to help me and we’ll go far.’ I liked that,” she recalls, seated before the magnificent grand piano at the University of Ottawa’s Piano Pedagogy Research Laboratory. Chrétien has been the honorary co-chair of the laboratory friends group since 2006.
Chrétien, who had to quit school at a very young age to work, is not an alumna of the University of Ottawa nor of any other university. That hasn’t stopped this self-taught woman who, in addition to being an accomplished pianist, speaks four languages. Not to mention that after more than 40 years in politics alongside her husband, she can tell the types of anecdotes that start with “When I said that to Hillary Clinton…”
Chrétien’s relationship with the University of Ottawa has been strengthened by the fact that her daughter and several of her grandchildren have studied here. Indeed, it seems that the University of Ottawa is a family affair for several recipients, including Judge Richard Wagner (BSocSc ’78; LLL ’79), who will receive the Meritas Tabaret Award for Alumni Achievement.
Wagner continues to be involved with this university, which his father and sister attended before him. In fact, he fought his first legal “battle” at the University of Ottawa, winning the right to register simultaneously in two faculties (Civil Law and Social Sciences), and, as a result, to work twice as hard!
For Wagner, though, hard work comes naturally. Blessed with a formidable work ethic, he spent 25 years of his life before the courts in every region of Quebec prior to taking his place on the bench, several years before being named to the Supreme Court in 2012.
Having reached a career summit, he still appreciates the world of possibilities he found at the University: “We had access to information from around the world, whether through guests, visiting professors or opportunities given to us that weren’t available elsewhere,” he says.
Even today, his University activities, including his participation in moots, allow him to find the same openness that served as a springboard to his career.
“There’s this kind of outward-looking curiosity at the University of Ottawa,” he says. “It’s been a tremendous help for me in my career, because I’ve always been curious. The University taught me to take nothing for granted, to always be prepared to look at the other side of things. I think it’s very clearly part of the philosophy of the institution: don’t be satisfied with what you already know. Look at other options, other perspectives.”
The Defy the Conventional Gala on May 9 will be an opportunity to highlight not only the achievements of our six recipients but also the spirit of openness and creativity that has defined the University of Ottawa for many years. Want to be part of the celebrations? Register now!