Pushing the envelope to give of ourselves


Dr. Gerry Turcotte

December 17, 2012

There is a moving story about a family's Christmas tradition that tells of a husband's aversion to receiving presents when so many in the community were in need.

The story goes that one fateful Christmas his wife, wishing to honour his views, decided to forego the usual array of ties and instead hung a small white envelope on the tree.

Having observed the poverty of an inner city wrestling team that competed against her son's wealthier school, she donated a complete set of wrestling uniforms to the opposing team all in her husband's name. She left the information about this in the small white envelope.

Needless to say the husband was overwhelmed by the gesture, which became an annual event.

Year after year, and even while the children received their more traditional presents, the family gathered around the father to see what "gift" had been given in his name, until one year, just before Christmas, the father passed away.

Grief-stricken, the mother was unable to prepare for the season, but when she came down that Christmas morning she discovered that each of her children had placed a white envelope on the tree, all having donated to an important cause on their father's behalf.

Christmas is a time of celebration, but also a time for reflection. It is traditionally a season when individuals and families gather together to praise God, to celebrate with loved ones and to count their blessings.

It may seem strange to say this, but it is a time when universities do the same. We remember to thank staff, students and faculty for the camaraderie, hard work, and dedication shown by all. It is an opportunity to count our blessings for the great gifts we have: the privilege to learn in safety and the joy of intellectual exchange and debate.

It is also critical that we never forget our mandate to be responsive to community needs. While we rejoice in the traditional gifts of a first class education, we should also be mindful to provide those small white envelopes that give back to the community.

I was reminded of this recently when our students at St. Mary's University College hosted their end of season ball and announced, unprompted and unasked, that they were dedicating 100 per cent of the proceeds of the event to Humanities 101, an academic program that enables severely disadvantaged learners to re-enter the educational system.

The expression "pushing the envelope" is originally derived from aeronautics and mathematics, and it means to move outside our comfort zone, to take what we know and see how we can develop and expand our boundaries to be better, faster and sharper.

At this sacred Christmas time it is all the more important to take a moment to reflect on the gifts we have been given, and consider how we can push the envelope socially: to reach out to those less fortunate, to come together as a community of caring citizens and life-long learners, and to hang a small white envelope on the tree.

(Dr. Gerry Turcotte is president, St. Mary's University in Calgary.)