Vince Thomson started a $800,000 fund at George Brown College for students in need. He is seen here with a giant cheque he received at his 80th birthday party for his De La Salle Fund. (JENNIFER ROBERTS/Jennifer Roberts for the)

Giving Back

Turning a lesson into an education

The Globe and Mail

The Donor: Vince Thomson

The Gift: Raising $800,000 and climbing

The Cause: George Brown College

The Reason: To finance student scholarships.

Vince Thomson has never forgotten the lesson in compassion his mother taught him 70 years ago. He was 10 years old and decided to buy a Christmas tree from a corner store near his home in Toronto. The shop was run by a frail woman with two small children and she told Mr. Thomson the trees cost 25 cents each. He offered 15 cents and she agreed. He returned home and boasted to his mother about the deal he'd negotiated. "She said, 'You know, that was not a very good thing to do,'" Mr. Thomson recalled. "She said we should be looking after other people rather than our own commercial benefit. That was a big learning experience for me."

He credits the experience for leading him to a 40-year career in education, which included teaching most grades and specializing in helping students who struggled with math. He also spent summers at George Brown College in Toronto teaching adults basic arithmetic. "When I retired I wanted to do more," he said. "I have a good pension and I thought I can donate at least 10 per cent or 20 per cent of my extra earnings."

About 10 years ago, Mr. Thomson contributed $5,000 for a scholarship fund at George Brown. He made annual donations and lined up contributions from dozens of former students, including David Denison, chief executive of the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board. Last month, a group of friends donated $80,000 to celebrate Mr. Thomson's 80th birthday.

Today the De La Salle Fund, named after French Saint Jean Baptist De La Salle who founded schools for the poor, has about $800,000 and provides annual awards to 12 needy students in nursing and social work. Mr. Thomson hasn't slowed down. He's already written a letter to new Governor General David Johnston about the financial difficulties students face.

"I hope to get [the fund]to $1-million if I live a few more years," he said. "At the same time it would be nice to have it at about $30-million."

pwaldie@globeandmail.com