Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

B'nai Brith merit award well-deserved

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This particular A list -- or Type A-personality list, if you prefer -- is long and exclusive: Former premier Gary Filmon and Janice Filmon, Lloyd Axworthy, Sandy and Robert Shindleman, Bob Silver, Arnie Thornsteinson, Sandy Riley, the late Izzy Asper and Bill Norrie, et al.

But Tuesday night in the Fort Garry Place ballroom, the person at the top of that distinguished group of Winnipeggers was Fort Garry Hotel managing partner Ida Albo. The little girl who grew up in the city's West End was honoured as the latest recipient of one of the nation's most prestigious civic honours, the B'nai Brith of Canada Award of Merit. It's an award she chose to share with her longtime life and business partner, Richard "Ric" Bel. The honour, which the Canadian ambassador to the United States, Gary Doer, flew here to be part of, speaks as much to whom Albo is as a person, as to what she's influenced with bricks and mortar, both publicly and privately.

That list is long, too.

At the top is the couple's pivotal part in saving and polishing the National Historic Site jewel that is their hotel. In a way, the saga of how the Fort Garry Hotel was resurrected epitomizes who they are as a business couple. But there is another even more inspiring story about who Albo is that she shared with the audience while her 80-year-old father, Frank, looked on -- her upbringing.

Albo is the eldest of four children (three girls and a boy) who were raised primarily above a grocery store kitty-corner to Sargent Park School. Her parents were Italian immigrants who could neither read nor write in English. Or even Italian. By the time she was 11, Albo was running the grocery store candy counter. Being kids in their own candy store, she and her two sisters took on the lumpy look of lollipops. And when a schoolground bully began relentlessly harassing one of her younger sisters about her weight, big sister Albo stepped up. She grabbed a fistful of dimes from her candy stash and went looking for the toughest kid in Grade 6.

"And," she delightfully recalled, "I had him take care of our problem."

Go to school or go to work -- that was the house rule at the grocery store. Albo chose school. By Grade 10, she was playing every school sport that would take her, and gradually she began to look like anything but a lollipop. Later, she became school president at Daniel McIntyre Collegiate. By 1980, when she was 20, she had graduated from the University of Winnipeg with honours degrees in economics and mathematics.

The economics department head, Jane Snidal, couldn't help but notice, and couldn't help but help. By the time she called Albo into her office, Snidal had filled out three post-graduate applications to three of Canada's top universities. Albo chose Queen's and the $18,000 scholarship ride that went with it.

Snidal's help was something Albo found familiar.

"Mom always reached out to help those in need," Albo told the crowd.

Her mother would be gone by age 57. She died just three months after being diagnosed with bladder cancer. That was 17 years ago. In the most recent of the intervening years, Albo has battled breast cancer twice, but always wears her signature smile. At least in public.

In her speech, Albo said she drew on her mother's strength when her breast cancer returned. Her mom had always taken everything in stride, "the bad, the good and ugly," Albo said.

"The gift she gave me was her perspective."

Her mom wasn't the only one who gave her that gift. Thirty years ago, when Albo and Bel met, he gave her a reading list, at the top of which was a book by Richard Bach called Illusions. A central lesson is that reality is based not so much on perception as perspective: "What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly."

"Perspective. Use it or lose it," Albo said.

That perspective has come in handy during her encounter with breast cancer. And that is the gift she offers those of us in this often perspective-challenged Prairie place, where our visibility -- and vision -- should be limitless. Like Ida Albo's and Ric Bel's.

Now, if we could only persuade her to run for mayor.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 29, 2012 B1

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