By Fred Sgambati (’83)
Dr. Gordon MacNeill (’48, ’87 HON) once thought he wouldn’t go to university. He would finish high school, get a job in his hometown of Sydney, Cape Breton and that would be it. Post-secondary school wasn’t really part of the plan.
But life turns on a dime and one can never anticipate how things will go, let alone the impact of a single conversation. Gordon recalls in Voices of Acadia, Vol. III, “my mother was a nurse and worked very hard to bring up the family. One day she met the high school principal on the hospital elevator and introduced herself. He asked what I was going to do and she said, ‘He’s going to get a job.’ Just as the elevator reached the first floor, he turned to her and said, ‘He must go to university.’ And that sealed it. My mother became the great advocate of university. A group of my high school friends were going to Acadia so I decided that Acadia was for me.”
That decision has affected the trajectory of his life ever since. Gordon did, in fact, go to Acadia, earned a BA in economics, played varsity basketball and, more importantly, met his future wife, Bobby (Barbara MacLennan MacNeill, ’50).
It wasn’t exactly a typical introduction. At the start of his second year, Gordon was asked to become a member of the cheerleading squad. He agreed and almost immediately regretted the decision. The group was made up mostly of senior students, more concerned with graduating than having fun. Gordon took it upon himself to conscript some fresh new faces to the fold.
“I was looking for a vivacious girl to stir things up,” he says. “I went downtown each day and met every train and bus that came into Wolfville. I’d watch as the passengers got off and then chat up every pretty young blond I could see. One of those girls was Bobby. She was an American who wanted something different so she went to the Encyclopedia Britannica and the first listing she saw was Acadia so she decided to go.”
The rest, of course, is history. Gordon and Bobby were a handsome and dynamic couple. They embraced the Acadia experience and immersed themselves in campus activities. Bobby completed a BA with a major in biology and was also a varsity basketball player whose success earned her a spot in the Acadia Sports Hall of Fame.
Test his skills
After graduation, Gordon went to Toronto and landed a job with Goodyear, starting as a trainee on the plant floor and working his way up to company president. At 31, he was head of a plant with 500 people under him. Eventually, he was in charge of five factories. He stayed at Goodyear for 23 years and was a candidate for one of the top jobs at Goodyear worldwide. He had to go to Harvard for advanced management training first, but life turns on a dime, you know, and he realized several things after completing the course: that he loved business and had lucked into a great field, but as long as he worked for a multinational, he would never test himself as a businessman.
Gordon was approached by a group of businessmen who had taken control of a sick company and asked him to run it. He pondered the offer and decided it was exactly the kind of thing he was looking for. In February 1976, he was named President and CEO of Jannock Ltd. – a conglomerate involved in steel, sugar, the brick business and electronics – and elected Chairman in 1989. He remained in that role until his retirement in 1996. Gordon was also elected Chairman of IPL Energy Inc., now known as Enbridge, in 1991 and held that position until he retired. Similarly, he was elected Chairman of Wajax Limited in 1992.
Gordon and Bobby raised four children (Glenn, Janice ’76, Scott and Jesslyn) and Gordon enjoyed tremendous success. He held numerous Board affiliations, including Aetna Life Insurance, Hayes Dana Ltd., Home Oil Ltd., Consumers Gas, Bowater Inc., Toronto Dominion Bank, Scott Paper Ltd., Anderson Exploration, and Empire Company Limited. He served as an active member of Acadia’s Board of Governors for more than two decades, remains an honorary Governor, and chaired two fundraising campaigns. He also served as Chairman of Knox College for eight years and chaired their restoration campaign.
Special kind of love
Unfortunately, Gordon lost his beloved Bobby in June 2017 after a short illness. The two had been married for 67 years. But theirs was a special kind of love that began at Acadia.
“Acadia was the right atmosphere for us,” Gordon says. “There was enough seriousness as far as studies were concerned, but there was a great camaraderie with friends and people you’ve never met before from all over the country. It made us realize that, hey, there’s something big and exciting out there just waiting for us.” And they made the most of it. Even more than 70 years after graduation, Gordon is still firmly connected to his alma mater as a donor and a powerful advocate for the value of post-secondary education.
“When Bobby and I started accumulating money and the kids were educated and out of the house, we decided we should be doing something for Acadia, and philanthropy in general. We met there and had a wonderful life. So we established the MacNeill Scholar-Bursary for students who graduate high school with an 80 per cent average, but can’t afford university.”
Such generosity is only a small part of their remarkable philanthropy. Bobby and Gordon provided a significant donation to the science complex renewal project on campus, and the main lecture theatre in Elliott Hall was named MacNeill Auditorium in their honour.
Their support for the Campaign for Acadia is a further extension of their ongoing interest in Acadia. Since 2013, Gordon and Bobby have given generously to the Campaign, providing gifts in excess of $3 million to ensure the success of present and future Acadia students for generations to come. Acadia is very proud to recognize them as the Campaign’s largest contributors.
“Gordon and Bobby MacNeill embody the essence of the Acadia experience,” says University President and Vice-Chancellor Dr. Peter Ricketts. “They met on campus as undergraduates, forged a deep and abiding love for one another and then took the world by storm, applying their Acadia education to great benefit. They have faithfully supported the University for decades in every way possible, and I’d like to thank them on behalf of the Acadia community for their kindness, passion and generosity.”
Vice-President, Advancement Dr. Rod Morrison echoes the sentiment. “Gordon’s and Bobby’s loyalty to Acadia University has been proven time and again and resulted in generous donations that have made Acadia a better place for students, faculty, staff and the community. Gordon’s interest in the University is as keen now as it was when he first arrived on campus, met the love of his life, and charted a course to personal and professional success, and we are extremely grateful for his remarkable service and support.”