By MYRON LOVE Community leaders David Asper and Harvey Secter were among ten individuals who were recipients of honorary degrees at the University of Manitoba’s most recent convocation.
For Harvey Secter, who was recognized with a Doctorate of Laws, the award was the culmination of a 30-plus year relationship with the university in one capacity or another. What made the event even sweeter for the university’s former Chancellor is that his wife, Sandra, was also honoured by the university with the Peter D. Curry Chancellor’s Award, which is given out annually to an individual who “has made outstanding contributions to the develop of the university.”
The Secter name is well known in our community. Harvey’s parents, the late Joe and Gwen Secter, set the bar high in terms of philanthropy and community leadership for their children – and Harvey and Sandra have certainly made their own mark in community service.
Harvey Secter began his working career in the family business, succeeding his father in operating Ricki’s Canada Ltd., a chain of ladies’ clothing stores across Canada, in partnership with his brother-in-law, Sam Guralnick.
In his time in business, Secter was involved with the Jewish Child and Family Service, which led into volunteering with the United Way, including chairing the 1998 United Way campaign.
He was part of the fundraising effort on behalf of the St. Boniface Hospital’s new Research Centre and served on the board of the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba for more than 12 years.
In 1982, Secter and Guralnick sold the business and Secter, after fully retiring from the company - by then in his 40s - returned in 1988 to the University of Manitoba - from whence he had previously earned a Bachelor of Commerce degree in 1969 - to pursue a career in law. He followed that up with a Master’s degree in Law from Harvard in 1995.
That same year, after returning to Winnipeg, he became a lecturer in Law at his alma mater, teaching in the fields of mediation and arbitration. In 1999, he was appointed Dean of the Law faculty. And, after retiring from that position in 2008, he was asked to serve as Chancellor of the university, a role he filled until 2019.
It was her contributions to the university as the wife of the Chancellor that earned Sandra Secter the Peter Curry Award. Harvey notes that it is unusual in that Sandra has never held an official position at the university.
The Chancellor serves, in a sense, as the university’s leading ambassador, Harvey Secter points out, and Sandra was the consummate “ambassador’s wife” by regularly engaging all the stakeholders, be they students, faculty, alumni or donors.
In her own right, Sandra Secter has contributed substantially to our community with leadership roles with the National Council of Jewish Women, the Combined Jewish Appeal – where she and close friend Marsha Cowan served as co-chairs of the 1997/8 campaign and again in 2001– as well as many arts organizations over the years.
“It was been really gratifying that others have found our joint efforts as volunteers over the years on behalf of the university and the community at large to be meaningful and worthy of recognition at this stage of our lives,” Secter concludes.
For David Asper - who was also recognized with a Doctorate of Laws, it was more of a bittersweet moment because David Milgaard wasn’t able to share the podium with him. Milgaard, the man that Asper spent many years moving heaven and earth to free from prison after he was falsely convicted for murder, was also scheduled to receive an honorary degree but, sadly, passed away in mid-May.
“I accepted his degree on behalf of David,” Asper says, “but it wasn’t the same without him. I missed having my guy beside me. That was to be his moment of full redemption.”
For readers who are unaware - or may have forgotten the details, Milgaard was a young man from Winnipeg – a drifter at the time – who happened to be crashing in Saskatoon for a period. In 1969, on a cold winter morning, a young nurse by the name of Gail Miller was brutally raped and murdered at a bus stop in Saskatoon. Footsteps in the snow led to the nearby house where the then-16-year-old Milgaard was temporarily staying.
Saskatoon police soon decided that Milgaard was their man. As the great Canadian criminal lawyer Eddie Greenspan pointed out in his autobiography, once the police and the Crown zero in on a suspect, they do their best to prove his guilt and ignore evidence that points to his innocence.
Thus, even though Milgaard steadfastly insisted that he was innocent, he was convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison. Through a quirk in our prison system, once convicted you can only get parole if you acknowledge your guilt – something which Milgaard refused to do.
David’s mother, the late Joyce Milgaard, believed in her son’s innocence and worked tirelessly to find anyone who would give him a fair hearing. In 1986, after 16 years in prison, the late Hersh Wolch took on the case and brought David Asper – a lawyer for Wolch’s firm – in to help.
Asper was soon spearheading the defense.
“I worked on David’s case for six years before he was released in 1992,” Asper recalls. “He was finally fully exonerated in 1997 by science and the evidence provided by DNA analysis. We became very close. A certain level of intimacy and intensity developed in our relationship”
(Another man – a serial killer as it turned out – who happened to be staying at the same house where Milgaard was staying at that time - was subsequently arrested and convicted of the murder.)
Asper observes that life outside went on in the years that Milgaard was incarcerated. “I met Ruth, the woman who would become my wife in 1986,” he says. “We had two children before David was released and our third before he was exonerated While my wife was working at starting a business and I was travelling across the country pursuing justice for David, his mother stepped up and helped us with our own family.”
In recent days, with kids grown, David Asper reports that he has cut back on his activities. “I am taking it easier,” he says. “I am still involved though in public service as a director of the North Portage Partnership Board and Chair of the Manitoba Police Commission, which I have found to be an interesting role.”