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Oration honouring Elinor Gill Ratcliffe

It is necessary, in opening, to set a distinction between charity and philanthropy for charity is but the giving of small change while philanthropy is the effecting of great change.

And, if one looks at the origins of the concept, if one looks at the Greek dramatist Aeschylus's character, Prometheus, one will see how philanthropy came into being.

Prometheus seeing the plight of humans took fire from Mount Olympus and brought it to them. Prometheus did not merely alleviate their immediate misery; he made possible their future for in bringing fire he brought not only warmth but also light.

The combination of these elements allowed for creativity and the fabrication of goods – laid the basis of civilization.

It was Aeschylus who first used the word "philanthropy" to speak of Prometheus' love of humanity. So philanthropy is not merely a giving; it is a giving with foresight of the growth of the individual, the organization or the community that receives.

Elinor Gill Ratcliffe is thus a philanthropist in that what she gives shapes a place. She comes to this public service from a long history in her own family. A distant ancestor, Michael Gill, saved Bonavista in 1704. Gill, a merchant from Charleston, Massachusetts trading into Newfoundland, was almost captured by a French raiding party.

Under constant bombardment for six hours he manage to evade his attackers and hold them off. His brave conduct encouraged resistance by the local inhabitants and, between them, they drove off the enemy. His sons established a business in Newfoundland, one raising a militia to improve the defence of St. John's, the other becoming chief magistrate.

Elinor Gill's own father, Burnham, was for a decade our provincial archivist and, in coming to the archives from journalism, made it a more open, welcoming place and gave it, through his wise administration, a strong future.

Making history, saving history and celebrating history would seem to be a family tradition.

Though Newfoundland born, she married away and spent much of her life in Kingston where she and her husband, Edward Ratcliffe, after a career in industry began a new career as givers to and creators of community – philanthropy in the Aeschylean sense.

In St. John's we first saw evidence of her generosity in the little Spencer girl at Rawlins' Cross – a recollection of her own connection with the community for she was a member of the last class to graduate from Bishop Spencer College.
Now, when we look at many of the fine sculptures that grace our public spaces, we think of Elinor Gill Ratcliffe.

But her reach, in true philanthropic fashion, is much wider than urban aesthetics. She has supported a broad group of social, cultural, educational and charitable causes among them the Newfoundland Regiment and the Historic Sites Association, the Vera Perlin Society, Daffodil Place and the George Street Soup Kitchen.

However, vice-chancellor, it should be made clear that the soup kitchen is not intended as a post-barhopping pick-me-up but is, rather, a program of the George Street United Church which was there long before the bars.

To The Rooms she provided a most munificent gift which will bring into being a major display on the social history of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Memorial too has benefited from her generosity – to us she provided funding for the Jarislowsky Chair in Culture Change. Her work also has an international dimension and she has supported such human rights organizations as Médecins Sans Frontières and Amnesty International.

It may be seen as appropriate that some of the money which created the Gill Ratcliffe Foundation came from a product known as angel stone. There is little question that many organizations see our honorary graduand in that light when she appears before them.

There is little question that she has had a major impact on the nature of philanthropy in Newfoundland and Labrador, so, vice-chancellor, I present to you for the degree of doctor of laws, honoris causa, Elinor Gill Ratcliffe.

Shane O'Dea
Public orator

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