For thousands of graduates, Western helped create a solid foundation for their future. For Bill Mara, HBA’56, he helped construct a solid foundation for Western.
In 1953, Mara, a Western business student at the time, was looking to get a little extra cash in his pocket. He signed up to help construct the massive pillars along Richmond Street – actually called the Jeffrey Memorial Gates, but affectionately known as the Richmond Gates.
“I was back from a summer of training cadets (University Navy Training Division) and was looking for some extra money,” the 80-year-old Mara said. “I had worked construction before and there was a construction company that was building these gates. The only other job in town was building Victoria Hospital, but that was like eight stories and I was terrified of heights. So I signed myself up for the gates.”
Mara worked for close to a month as a mason’s helper by mixing the mortar. He specifically remembers helping to build the south pillar.
“The job I could do was the gates, but after a month they took me off that and sent me to Victoria Hospital and, of course, I found myself eight-stories high,” laughed Mara, who also drove a cab while at Western.
Born and raised in Sarnia, Mara moved to Lambeth at age 10. He remembers his two-room elementary schoolhouse, and one-room continuation school. As the first male in his family to graduate high school, let alone attend university, Mara set his sights on Western.
“My dad was one who wasn’t sold on university. He was more of a hard-work type of guy,” Mara said. “I wasn’t afraid of hard work. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew what I didn’t want to do – factory work, construction. My dad told me, ‘If you go to Western, you’re on your own financially.’ I was angry at that time, but he was teaching me a lesson, and I know that now.”
Mara would enrol in the fall of 1951 as an arts student. He decided to take a business course that same year, which changed his focus completely. To this day, he speaks of professor Ed Fox as “the most incredible, dynamic person I had ever run into in my life.”
“He was sharp dresser and just looked like he belonged there. And boy did he ever make business fun, and I thought I could do this, it’s exciting,” Mara said.
Mara would go on to a successful business career turning around failing companies, before becoming his own boss with the purchase of a Michigan-based home health-care business.
“I had an absolutely wonderful career. Even my poorest days were better than anything I could ever dream happen to me,” he said. “It was never work. I can’t believe I could make a living at this. I was having so much fun that I’d do it for nothing.”
At Western, Mara met his wife of 56 years, Diana, in the first class he attended. It was in Conron Hall, where the students were seated alphabetically.
“I knew a guy named Don McArthur. He and I were sitting pretty much together, except there was a girl sitting between us by the name of Diana Mills,” Mara said with a smile. “We were having a coffee after class and he said to me, ‘Did anyone ever tell you that you have the prettiest blue eyes?’ I was like, ‘What the …?’ He said, ‘No, Diana Mills, she said you had nice eyes.’
“And I told Don, ‘Well, Diana Mills is rather well-constructed herself.’”
After a handful of phone calls, she finally agreed to go out with him and, as Mara puts it, “we’ve hung around together ever since.”
Mara admits he’d come back to classes at Western in a heartbeat. But that might not be in the cards. So, he has decided to do the next best thing. Through Foundation Western, he is working on establishing a scholarship for the Richard Ivey School of Business.
“I’m doing it because I can, but also because I really would never have had the life I had had it not been for this experience. I would love to see other people have the same opportunity,” Mara said. “I want the people who are recipients to feel they have some moral obligation to do unto others as has been done unto them. That’s why I think people like me should step up.
“The important thing is not a name on a building, but the ability to prepare the students for success upon graduation. It wasn’t a hard choice for me.”