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A Tribute to Former U of T President John Evans

“We have lost a great and passionate Canadian who believed this country had much to offer a troubled world”

February 24, 2015

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John Robert Evans, who served as U of T’s ninth president from 1972 to 1978, passed away on Feb. 13, 2015 at the age of 85. Ilse Treurnicht, CEO of MaRS Discovery District, delivered the following eulogy at a memorial service for Dr. Evans on Feb. 19 in Toronto.

John’s domestic legacy is so large, so multifaceted that it is impossible to do it justice. But about John Evans, two things can safely be said. No other Canadian has contributed in such a meaningful way to so many important aspects of life in our city, our province and our country over the last 50 years. And no one so prominent has ever been so disinterested in the limelight.

Let me simply touch on three unique roles that John played in our nation’s development.

First there was John Evans as the unexpected medical revolutionary.

John, of course, started his academic medical career brilliantly and properly.

By 1952, aged 23, John was already a prize-winning medical graduate and a Rhodes Scholar. He finished his DPhil at Oxford, did specialist training in Boston and London, and then settled into his first academic post in Toronto.

Then a different John Evans began to emerge.

John was a phenomenal clinician and a great teacher, but in his own respectful and understated way, he had no patience with conventional wisdom. In short order, Dr. Evans and other young renegades started brainstorming about novel ways of recruiting and educating medical doctors. They generated a very polite proposal to mount a pilot program at Sunnybrook Hospital, far away from the conservative forces of the downtown medical establishment.


Their proposal was briskly rejected by the dean’s office. However, word of these radical ideas had spread to nearby McMaster, where President Harry Thode was looking for a visionary dean to lead a new medical school. As the saying goes, the rest is history.

Named dean at age 35, John Evans with his colleagues created a remarkable education and health research Camelot at McMaster. The McMaster program pioneered problem-based learning and self-directed objective-based learning methods. It also admitted candidates from varied academic backgrounds and different walks of life. These strategies were decades ahead of their time, but have since been emulated across Canada and around the world.

In 1972 John heeded the call of duty from his alma mater and became president of the University of Toronto. The innovator who led a dynamic start-up was now steward of a massive 150-year old institution in a period of budget pressures and student unrest. Administrative headaches aside, John, as always, had fun.

What follows was one of his favourite U of T stories.

One day, President Evans arrived to find his staff in a state of panic. There in his second floor office was a shiny Volkswagen Beetle. Should an auto-wrecker be called to disassemble and remove it? Should the police be notified? John calmed everyone down, and simply began work at his desk with the car as his companion.

Two hours later, John received a call from the president of the engineering students’ society. Niceties were exchanged. Then John was strategically silent. The student leader soon blurted incredulously: “Have you noticed anything unusual in your office?” John replied, “No, nothing at all. Was there some reason for the question?” There was stunned silence on the other end. Soon after, a platoon of engineering students came to disassemble and remove the Volkswagen.

As we all know, John Evans contested a federal by-election in 1978 after retiring from U of T. Our beloved six-foot, four-inch ex-university president squared off in Rosedale against the Tiny Perfect ex-Mayor of Toronto, David Crombie. The media touted Dr. Evans as a shoo-in for health minister and a potential successor to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. The voters thought otherwise.

It was a great disappointment, but there was a silver lining. John Evans was again free to do what he did better than anyone else – inventing and reinventing institutions and organizations.

And that became his second unique role — John Evans as Canada’s great institutional innovator.

John warmed up for that role with a few wonderfully disruptive years at the World Bank. Then he returned home and got busy on many fronts.

John was executive chair of Canada’s first biotechnology company, Allelix. Serving on the boards of some of Canada’s most august corporations, Torstar, Alcan, and RBC among others, John became a renowned champion for better governance along with innovation in business processes and practices.


He also worked tirelessly as a volunteer to build our national innovation capacity, serving, for example, as founding chair of the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences, the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research and the Canada Foundation for Innovation. And while health remained a touchstone, he quietly catalyzed many other creative and city-building endeavours.


Which brings us to a third unique role: John Evans as the all-Canadian Rosetta Stone. He not only brought people together from every background; he helped them understand each other.

More than any Canadian of his generation, John Evans moved easily across sectors – government, non-profit and private – and brought them together. In like fashion, he was constantly concerned with linking academic researchers to innovators in the business and community realms.

These translational talents came together in John Evans’ last great project. It began in 2000 when John gathered a group of like-minded Canadians and set in motion the organization and facilities that together have come to be known as MaRS.

The practical catalyst for MaRS was a plan by the University Health Network to sell its real estate on College Street for condominium development. John Evans imagined that space instead becoming a convergence centre, focused on translating ideas into action and academic discoveries into successful companies. Such a facility could be a uniquely Canadian incubator for collaboration and innovation across a range of disciplines, drawing on the firepower of Toronto’s great research hospitals as well as the region’s universities and colleges, and the creative energy of our city.

As John learned in the early years, the road has not always been easy. But we are well on our way, and countless MaRSians who knew and loved John Evans will see to it that his vision is realized.

John would have been mortified to hear anyone list the scores of honours that he received over many decades. For that matter, neither the foregoing sampling of milestones and accomplishments, nor any list of awards is adequate to take the measure of John Evans or to frame fully the dimensions of our loss.

What are those dimensions?

We have lost a great and passionate Canadian who believed this country had much to offer a troubled world. And he devoted his life to an expansive vision of citizenship.

We have lost an idealist who inspired others with his focus on big ideas and kept our aspirations high. He was endlessly curious and optimistic about our collective future. And sought always to help us be ready for it.

We have lost an old-fashioned gentleman who was a thoroughly modern leader – open, collaborative, inclusive, facilitating and enabling.

We have lost a brilliant colleague with a spectacular capacity for synthesis. As chair of a board or in any group setting, John Evans said very little. But he always asked the best and hardest questions – and then softened them with a goofy or self-deprecating joke.

We have lost a fabulous mentor. His interest in others was instinctive, genuine and unflagging. And if there was one thing that John Evans loved to do, it was helping young people find their highest purpose and best way forward in life.

We have lost a truly honourable man who radiated kindness, humility and goodness. Perhaps that is how, in a polarized and partisan world, John Evans moved mountains while making friends everywhere.

We have also lost a very courageous friend. John bravely bore the ravages of a dreadful neurodegenerative disorder that struck cruelly at the core of his being.

Even all this, I suspect, still fails to capture why so many of us will miss John so much. Maya Angelo once said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” When I first heard this statement, I immediately thought of John.

I do not know anyone who brought out the best in others more consistently and effortlessly than John Evans. And perhaps in consequence, I do not know any man who was loved by more people from more walks of life.

Speaking of love, I want to extend our collective and heartfelt condolences to Gay and the Evans family. Thank you for the love and care you gave John, not least in these last difficult years. Most importantly, we thank you for sharing John so generously with all of us.

We shall never forget him.


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