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Supporting greatness through philanthropy

Supporting greatness through philanthropy

[Art McDonald with the Grays]

Art McDonald with Gordon and Patricia Gray at a reception held for them in Toronto. When the three “talked neutrinos,” the Grays learned from Dr. McDonald that there are about “a zillion neutrinos” in a single atom.

Gordon and Patricia Gray remember exactly where they were when they learned about Art McDonald’s Nobel Prize. “It’s one of those moments you never forget,” says Mr. Gray, Arts’50.

World travellers who have visited 574 countries thus far, the Grays were enjoying a rare quiet breakfast in their Toronto-area home when they heard the news. It was an especially unforgettable moment for the couple, who, through the Gordon and Patricia Gray Chair in Particle Astrophysics, provided financial backing that supported Dr. McDonald’s research into the subatomic neutrino.

Catherine Purcell, Artsci’78, MEd’98, Director of Principal Gifts at Smith School of Business, first met the couple in 2002. A development officer with the Faculty of Arts & Science at the time, Ms. Purcell was exploring philanthropic opportunities with Mr. Gray.

Gordon Gray began his career with Price Waterhouse in Toronto, where he worked for, and befriended, legendary businessman E.P. Taylor. Taylor introduced him to the A.E. LePage company, which Gray would go on to run for many years. “It was a little wee company,” he says. “When I started, we only had 78 employees.” By the time he left in 1994, it had grown to more than 12,000.

Among his accomplishments was the formation of the company’s commercial division. His legacy includes some noteworthy additions to the Toronto skyline, including the Hummingbird Centre, the Toronto-Dominion Centre, and Royal Bank Plaza.

Not one to slip into idle retirement, Mr. Gray has maintained a brisk pace since stepping down from LePage. In addition to an impressive portfolio of corporate directorships, the Grays run a foundation that donates half a million dollars annually to animal welfare causes, including a hospital for injured sea turtles near their winter home in Jupiter, Fla. (Patricia Gray is also a master gardener, decorator and skilled sea plane pilot.)

When you get to the end of the universe, what's next?

The couple’s foundation is equally active on land. “When the big elephant in Kenya was slaughtered a few months ago, I called my friends at the African Wildlife Foundation and suggested that we offer a reward,” says Mr. Gray. The Gray Animal Welfare Foundation now funds a project that trains dogs to sniff ivory and rhino horn in air and sea ports in Kenya and Tanzania. “The name of the game is to intercept the poachers at the point of shipment.”

When he’s not travelling the world or helping endangered wildlife, Mr. Gray likes to explore another passion that extends far beyond this planet. “When I was young, I imagined myself as an astronomer,” he says. “I have always been interested in the universe.”

A native of Copper Cliff, Ont., on the outskirts of Sudbury, Mr. Gray was familiar with Queen’s nascent partnership with Laurentian University, among others, to build the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) at the bottom of the Creighton Mine. “All of the pieces came together and I thought he and Patricia would be a perfect fit for the chair in particle astrophysics,” Ms. Purcell says.

The fit was better than she could have known. Over the years, Mr. Gray has indulged his curiosity by cultivating relationships with scientists and asking them metaphysical questions. “One of my favourites is: ‘When you get to the end of the universe, what’s next?’ It’s the best question I can think of to evidence the inability of the human mind to comprehend the incomprehensible,” he says.

Four years later, following a family tour of the subterranean SNOLAB, the Gordon and Patricia Gray Chair in Particle Astrophysics became a reality. Dr. McDonald was its inaugural recipient, serving from 2006 to 2014. During that time, he paid annual visits to the Grays’ home to answer the family’s questions and talk neutrinos.

“I once asked him about the size of a neutrino in relation to an atom,” Mr. Gray says. “He said there are about a zillion neutrinos needed to make a single atom. There’s no such number, of course, but it does give you an idea of how small they are.”

With Dr. McDonald’s retirement in 2014, Dr. Mark Chen, Sc’89, became the second recipient of the Gray Chair. The director of SNO+, Dr. Chen hopes to build on SNOLAB’s work by expanding the facility’s ability to detect neutrinos. “With the iscovery that neutrinos have mass, we want to understand how they acquired their mass and why it is so small compared with other particles,” he says.

The Grays have only met with Dr. Chen once so far. “He came to our home to tell us about his activities during the year, which is our tradition,” Mr. Gray says. Not surprisingly, the conversation turned to the end of the universe. “I asked him hat exists next to it,” he says with a laugh, “but he didn’t know either.”

As SNO+ gets set to begin operation over the next few months, Dr. Chen says the time is right for his benefactors to return to the mine. “I welcome the opportunity to show them the work we’re doing,” he says. “My hope is to inaugurate the new detector by bringing Gordon and Patricia back underground.”

After hearing the news of Dr. McDonald’s Nobel Prize and fielding congratulatory calls from family and friends, the Grays took a moment to reflect on the accomplishment. Gordon Gray realized that the experience left him feeling much like he does whenever he ponders the mysteries of the universe. “To think we may have had a minute role in something like this,” he says, “it’s almost beyond comprehension.”

[cover graphic of Queen's Alumni Review, issue 1-2016]