Oration honoring Vincent Withers

(June 4, 1998, Gazette)

In a short story by the renowned British author, Somerset Maugham, the protagonist, caretaker of a fashionable and pretentious English parish, is summarily dismissed from his position due to a personal inaptitude. The character goes on to establish a minor economic empire and achieve a financial status which he never would have attained had his initial desire to retain his original calling been realized.

There is perhaps a hidden parallel here with the life of the candidate before us this morning. Lacking the athletic aptitude to pursue his dream of playing baseball with the elite members of the St. John's senior men's league, Vince Withers turned his attention to softball, not only as a player and an umpire, but also as an organizer and founder of the sporting infrastructure we enjoy in this province today.

Whether or not Mr. Withers has established an economic empire, I will leave to your judgement; but his curriculum vitae does indeed include an impressive list of business credentials. He has served as CEO, president, director, chair, or member of the board to a host of prominent enterprises: NewTel, the Stentor Group, Telesat, Alouette Telecommunications, FPI, and Seabright - to name only a few. The point we should note is that, while the list of business-related positions and activities of this candidate is lengthy and impressive, the catalogue is matched in length by his community volunteer functions. The Red Cross, CNIB, the Kidney Foundation, Cabot College, the provincial safety and arts councils are just a few of the organizations which have benefitted from his involvement and, more particularly, his leadership.

Nor does Mr. Withers' community participation end there. His volunteer and business-related activities, in fact, pale in relation to his involvement in sports, an involvement stretching from that 1957 transfer of interest from baseball to softball, through four decades of active contribution to the development of that sport and provincial sporting activities in general, and culminating in 1994 with his appointment to the Olympic Trust Board of Governors, and two years later to the Executive Committee of the Olympic Board.

Thus, while we do not know whether Somerset Maugham's fictional character developed a social conscience as he improved his economic status, there can be little doubt of the civic responsibility and community dedication of Vince Withers.

There is a final point to be made, Mr. Chancellor, about this candidate. The author of the aforementioned newspaper article designated him as a "million dollar man" in a year when the average Newfoundland worker's wage had markedly plunged. The rhetoric of the newspaper report reflects the sad reality of a pervasive economic disparity which is truly disheartening to graduating students who have assumed massive burdens of debt in order to obtain the academic credentials being bestowed upon them today. It is equally disturbing to those of us who daily witness the growing physical and emotional stress of the young people we encounter in our classrooms. But Vince Withers, who has indeed achieved the pinnacle of success in the world of commerce, and enjoys the benefits thereof, is a person who is also disheartened by this situation. Having embarked on his career at the age of 18, armed only with a Grade 11 diploma, he is now a committed and outspoken champion of open access for all Newfoundland youth to the postsecondary education of which he himself was deprived.

To all of us who are concerned about the future of this province, its labor force and its younger generations, the best endorsement for this candidate can be found in his own words:

"The single largest impediment to meeting the demands of our rapidly changing world is the restrictive access rules currently in place for postsecondary education ....

"We cannot continue to tolerate the existence of elitist attitudes which say that the doors of postsecondary education should be open only to those of us with the financial means to support our children ....

"If we are to reduce our dependency on social benefits in the longer term, we must equip our people with a decent education, including a mandatory postsecondary education."

Mr. Chancellor, it is my pleasure to present for the degree of doctor of laws, honoris causa, a Newfoundlander who serves as a model, not only of professional success, but also, and more importantly, of civic responsibility - Vincent George Withers.

Dr. Laurel Doucette
University Orator