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Windsor’s Mary Jo Haddad brings GRIT and commitment to her role as university chancellor.
Author: Veronique Mandal
Photographer: Rob Teteruk
5 years ago
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The new chancellor of the University of Windsor has never shied away from a challenge; after all, she has certainly taken on many in her long and illustrious career in health care.

Mary Jo Haddad has also been at the forefront of many firsts—a member of the first graduating nursing class at St. Clair College; part of the first wave of nurses to work in Michigan hospitals; the first woman president and CEO of the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto; and now, the first woman to hold the chancellor position in Windsor.

Yet, despite having reached the pinnacle of success in her field—receiving several honorary doctorate degrees from Canadian universities, the Alumni of Distinction Award from St. Clair College, being appointed a Member of the Order of Canada, receiving the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal and Premier’s Award for Outstanding Achievement—Haddad is a woman of substance who has taken nothing for granted and appears humbled by her successes.

Born and raised by immigrant parents with her five brothers and sisters in Windsor, Haddad has always considered family to be an important part of her life. The foundations for the career and successes she would find later in life were set from the time she was a teenager at F.J. Brennan Catholic High School

“I knew I wanted to be a nurse because I loved children,” said Haddad. She entered the two-year nursing program at St. Clair College, graduating in 1976 at a time when jobs were scarce. She was one of two students offered a job and she went off to work at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan in Detroit

“I worked in neonatal ICU. It was an amazing experience and we were working in a challenging social environment,” she said. “It was a life-changing and rewarding experience that helped me create lifelong colleagues and friends. And, it was a fantastic foundation for my career.”

Her eight-year experience in Detroit cemented Haddad’s commitment to the care of children

Although enjoying her work in Detroit, Haddad says she wanted to learn more and started her undergraduate degree in nursing at the University of Windsor part-time. After calculating how long it was going to take to get her degree, she soon decided to pursue classes full-time and work part-time at Children’s Hospital.

Along with her nursing colleague and friend, Leeann Wiseman, they opened the Parent-Child Health Nursing consulting practice in Windsor on a part-time basis. They were caring for babies who had tough beginnings, and teaching parents how to cope with children who were home on monitors. Haddad was enjoying the experience but could not see it being sustained

“I loved it but I could never make a living if I wanted to be out on my own,” said Haddad. “I wanted to work in Ontario and continue working with children, so I applied for a leadership position at SickKids in Toronto in the neonatal unit and the rest is history.”

Soon after moving to Toronto, Haddad met her future husband Jim Forster at a house party thrown by mutual friends Kathy and Roger Sabo, who remain their friends to this day. Jim and Mary Jo were married in 1988. Their first child was born three years later

“Going back to work after I had my first child, I walked into the CCU and there was a little baby there who had a trauma that was horrific. I remember feeling so overwhelmed thinking that could be my child. I made a decision in that moment to always do my best and to always champion children, health care, and well-being.”

Her career at SickKids would span 30 years. The trajectory of her meteoric rise in the organization was exceptional. She entered as a manager in the neonatal ICU and progressed to director of critical care including neonatal ICU and paediatric ICU. She soon became vice president of paediatric medicine, then did a stint for about a year and a half as chief nursing executive before being appointed the chief operating officer. When the hospital CEO left, she was asked to step in as the interim president and CEO

After several months she was invited to put her name forward for the permanent position. She knew, with SickKids being a global organization, it would be an enormously challenging job. Now, the family had to be involved.

“My youngest son was just seven years old and I had two other kids and my husband. We lived in Oakville, so I commuted. This was a big decision to make from a family perspective,” said Haddad. “We had a little family meeting and they said ‘Mom, you have to do this,’ so I put my name forward and I was the successful candidate.” Haddad’s husband Jim worked in sales and marketing in industrial plastics, and he retired early to support the demands of his wife’s career and to ensure someone would always be available for the children

In 2004, as CEO of one of the world’s most prestigious hospitals for children, Haddad’s career took on a life of its own. In 2011, she was named one of Canada’s inaugural Top 25 Women of Influence in health sciences and inducted into the Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100 Hall of Fame. In November 2012 she was recognized as one of Toronto Life’s 50 Influential People

But, while she appreciated the recognition, she acknowledges that such a position also comes with a burden and many challenges.

“I knew I was standing on the shoulders of giants in that organization if I took on the role. So, huge expectations on me—it was a complex role in an academic centre and on a global stage,” said Haddad. “Securing resources to deliver services people were counting on you for and always knowing you had to keep your feet on the ground—as I looked in the mirror every morning, I had to make sure I was always doing the right thing.”

Haddad said she believes many people today struggle with that kind of challenge and commitment

“I am hoping I am a story of how it can be very doable—remaining grounded but also remaining committed to what’s important to you in life,” said Haddad. “I pinched myself many days. You know, it’s amazing in life the opportunities that are often in front of us and it takes courage and it takes supportive people around you—colleagues, friends, and family.”

Haddad retired from SickKids in 2014 and started a health care and leadership consulting practice called MJH & Associates. She is a director for TD Bank Group, TELUS, and Children First Canada

Because of what SickKids meant to her life and career, Haddad wanted some way to honour the history of the hospital. Prior to her retirement, she commissioned the writing of the SickKids’ history. Written by David Wright, it was published in 2016, and is something she says she is incredibly proud of accomplishing.

Her appointment as chancellor of her hometown university, she says, is a tremendous honour and an opportunity to give back to a community that has been so important in her life.

“The university has always meant so much to me. I have stayed connected as much as I could,” said Haddad. “I was honoured by the university with an honorary doctorate degree. So, I’m learning more about the university today to be able to give back and champion professors and students, present and future.”

Interim President Douglas Kneale could not be more pleased with the appointment of Haddad as the university’s eighth chancellor, taking over from Ed Lumley

“I am delighted because I believe she will be an inspiring role model for women and men at the university,” said Kneale. “She has been a huge supporter of the university as a member of our fundraising cabinet and serves as one of the university’s champions for its Place of Promise fundraising campaign. Everything she has accomplished, and her upbringing here in Windsor, embodies the values of our university and our community.”

While Haddad will be primarily focused on her appointment at the University of Windsor, she is equally proud of her status as a graduate of St. Clair College.

“The college was early on in acknowledging me and I was thrilled to receive the Alumni of Distinction,” said Haddad. “They granted my dream of being a nurse and I have fabulous memories of great colleagues and instructors I met there as well.”

College President Patti France said while they are proud and excited when graduates achieve their professional goals, those who climb to the very pinnacle of their fields, as Haddad has done, are “truly glowing examples” of the quality of education and work ethic instilled by St. Clair College.

“That’s why we honoured her in 2004 as one of our Alumni of Distinction,” said France. “Life-long learning is the key to significant advancement and success, and we’re so pleased that Mary Jo’s educational voyage began with her St. Clair nursing diploma. Hers is a classic case-in-point of the college’s ‘Start Here, Go Anywhere’ slogan. The college, as her alma mater, will certainly be inviting her to pop in on occasion as a guest speaker to students, both in health sciences and business. Her personal story of lifelong education is relevant and inspirational to many students who are contemplating a combination of college and university-based schooling.”

Haddad has indeed been a champion of postsecondary education—while at SickKids she pursued a master’s degree in health administration from the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto, graduating in 1998—and said she and her husband encouraged their children to pursue higher education goals. Their son Jonathan, 22, recently graduated from the business program at Laurier University and is working in Toronto. Daughter Nicole, 26, attended McMaster University and received a master’s degree at the University of British Columbia, and is now working as a genetic counsellor at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Toronto. Their eldest, Stephen, 28, studied environmental biology at Laurier University, attended Niagara College, and is working in soil remediation with a team in the GTA.

As chancellor, Haddad will serve as the titular head of the university and confer all degrees and diplomas on behalf of the senate. She will also represent the university in an official capacity at external functions. She is looking forward to spending more time in the city.

“We used to bring the kids and spend time with my mom and dad and not just on holidays but in the summer and March break. But, as we get older and life gets busier, the time is not there…but for sure I will be coming more often. Obviously, I will always be there for convocations and I will get involved in the university to really understand its priorities, so I can champion its goals and those priorities.”

Haddad describes herself as an optimist who approaches life with a positive attitude and surrounds herself with positive people. She and her husband recently celebrated 30 years together. She credits Jim and her children for contributing greatly to her success.

“When I look in the rear-view mirror, I want to feel I gave it everything I had and that keeps you grounded,” said Haddad. “Family is an equal partner and they often carry the heavy load.”

The role of chancellor comes with pomp and ceremony. During one of their several meetings, Kneale brought out the robe worn by Lumley during his 12 years as chancellor. It was well worn and had fitted a very tall man. Kneale quickly suggested it might be time to shop for a new robe.

They met in Toronto at Harcourts, where tailors have been making robes for chancellors for more than 30 years. The tailor showed Haddad several options and she chose one with a view to retaining tradition. The new robe being designed will include traditional insignia but will be more appropriate in design and size to the first woman chancellor. Unlike Lumley, Haddad has chosen to also wear a ceremonial hat.

Haddad says knowing she is the first woman chancellor in Windsor at first gave her pause, but while she does not want the position to be defined that way, she understands its impact.

“This is a sign of women in academia, a sign of a changing world. There are now many women chancellors in a world where possibilities are endless,” said Haddad. “These become important issues especially for people in positions where they can be role models and mentors for others. I see this as a responsibility to pay it forward, creating a world we all want to be a part of. Being appointed chancellor is humbling and I approach it with pride, and I will work to be the best I can be at it.” After all, she says, she’s coming home

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