Gem of St. Mary’s made possible by Allan Markin
There is a little-known gem of a university tucked along one edge of Fish Creek Park in Calgary’s southeast that likely wouldn’t even exist were it not for another gem — or rather — treasure. The gem is St. Mary’s University College. The treasure is Allan Markin.
On Wednesday evening, several hundred people gathered to recognize the Calgary philanthropist’s two-decadelong support of St. Mary’s, and to raise money for this private, Catholic university that is open to all.
“I want to be clear,” said Gerry Turcotte, president of St. Mary’s University College, to the assembled crowd at the Sheraton Suites Hotel downtown, “that this event was not easy to organize.”
Why? Because, as is his way, Markin likes to “fly under the radar,” and for many years, he was often referred to as simply “anonymous donor” on the top donation ledgers of countless worthy causes across the province.
“Allan was reluctant to have such a public forum,” said Turcotte, but he was convinced that such an event would be a great “opportunity to spread the word about a university that simply isn’t well enough known in Alberta.
“As an institution that receives only modest funding from the government and no capital or infrastructure funding — and as a university that has worked hard to keep its tuition rates on par with the public institutions — it has been critical to have the support of Dr. Markin year by year,” added Turcotte.
How critical? Well, Turcotte says St. Mary’s wouldn’t exist at all were it not for Markin, who has donated more than $20 million to the institution over the past two decades — seeing it grow and transform the lives of more than 5,000 students over the years.
Turcotte, a Canadian academic working in Australia, was lured away from the land down under to run St. Mary’s three years ago, when he learned of the philosophy behind the institution at 14500 Bannister Rd. S.E. Its goal is to “educate the whole person” and prepare students to think about the ethical issues in society and giving back to the community.
“I have often wondered what the value is of an education if all it equips you to do is to be an expert at a narrow task that will prepare you to be wealthy, successful and self-focused. And I was thrilled to discover St. Mary’s, which not only serves the very highest academic achievers, but that also offers a university-level program — free of charge — to cater to the city’s most disadvantaged learners,” explained Turcotte.
Not only does the Humanities 101 program provide free tuition to struggling individuals, but also free food, transportation and child care, “so that individuals who have fallen out of the system can find a welcoming and meaningful place to begin again.”
Clearly, the ethical training is paying off, since more than 25 per cent of the 700 students attending St. Mary’s are actively volunteering in the community with the elderly, youth and the homeless.
Turcotte said the time has come for St. Mary’s story to be heard, “but we need to be clear. There would be no story if it weren’t for Allan Markin.”
And, it appears that Markin’s legendary generosity will continue. Markin, a part owner of the Calgary Flames, who made his fortune as the CEO of Canadian Natural Resources (CRNL), is helping the university — which accepted 17 per cent more students last year over the previous year — to expand. One of the new proposed buildings will bear Markin’s name.
Many Herald readers will recall that Markin tripled to $3.3 million the money raised during the paper’s Christmas Fund in 2011 and was the anonymous donor who doubled it the previous year.
A big believer in the importance of vitamin D and other vitamins and minerals, Markin, who graduated with a bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering from the University of Alberta in 1968, started up Pure North S’Energy Foundation in 2006 that provides preventive health care to thousands of Albertans, mostly at no charge. He pays for dental and health care for the clients of the Calgary Drop-In and Rehab Centre and his attention to their health has helped many turn away from a life of substance abuse.
“I’ve had the honour of knowing Allan for three years now, and I’ve been able to watch him in action,” said Turcotte. “I recently sat with a homeless man who said to me, ‘No one’s ever taken the time to care for me. But he did.’ And he meant Allan.”
When it came time for Markin to speak after several standing ovations, in his typical humble way he told the crowd to look up the definition of hyperbole.
He then spent most of his speech praising St. Mary’s and how it has improved his life.
When he was first approached to help out St. Mary’s decades ago, Markin decided he’d check it out by studying at the university. He enrolled in a philosophy course, called the history of ideas, which he says helped him immeasurably in his business life to think more strategically and by finding “kinship with the world’s great philosophers who always valued truth and integrity.
“From Immanuel Kant I learned never to treat another human being as a means to an end,” said Markin, who is renowned for his unique management style at CNRL, in which he met with each field employee at least twice a year to learn where the company could improve.
“Allan,” said Turcotte in closing, “there are many people who can claim to have supported a university, but there are not many who can say they helped to build one.”
A gem from a jewel.