Bonnie and John Buhler may have donated millions of dollars to countless organizations down the years, but they will never lose sight of their humble beginnings.
The couple was recently honoured at the Jewish National Fund of Canada — Manitoba/Saskatchewan Region’s Negev Gala 2012.
The event featured percussionist Chen Zimbalista, who directed and performed with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and singer Chen Levi.
The gala’s co-chair, Karla Berbrayer, said the Buhlers were chosen for their contribution to the "betterment of Winnipeg life as a whole. They’ve given so much to the richness of the city."
"When we sat around the table and looked at their history of philanthropy, we realized they hadn’t been honoured, in this way, to date," said Berbrayer, who lives in Tuxedo.
"They’ve donated to so many types of organizations — not just the arts, sciences or sports. I think that’s what makes them unique."
The East St. Paul-based couple’s list of donations includes Seven Oaks Hospital, St. Amant, St. Boniface Hospital & Research Foundation, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Red River College and the University of Winnipeg.
Reluctant to call himself a philanthropist, and toying with the label of farmer, John chose the term businessman: "I have been since 1954. My aunts and uncles had farms and they always intrigued me."
Buhler Industries was established in 1969, when John bought Standard Engine Gas Works. The company originally produced the Farm King line of grain augers, snowblowers and mowers.
In 2000, he bought the Versatile tractor plant and a controversial strike with the union eventually ensued — a situation which John said cemented his philanthropic streak.
"We were making large contributions before the strike, but then certain elements turned on us. Bonnie said ‘we’re not ogres’ and this triggered us to give more generously to help ease our conscience and clear our name," John said.
And despite building a business empire, he said the recent nod from the JNF was an "extreme honour."
"I’m still wondering why it happened. They referred to us as prominent citizens, but goodness me — I’m a country boy from Morden," John said.
He wryly noted he is happy to spend the inheritance of his kids and grandchildren. "I had to earn my money. I want my kids to do the same. They’ve done OK for themselves."
Bonnie agrees with John — "you’re not going to leave it all to your children, you have to make a conscientious effort to give back" — while reinforcing that her family has always been a driving force.
"When I was a single parent, for a long time, living in low-rental housing, I struggled and worked and paid a babysitter," Bonnie said. "You can’t just sit on your duff. You should be doing something."
"John built a business working 18 hours a day, seven days a week. Neither of us ever had anything handed to us," she said, noting the attention from the recent event was overwhelming, but the "gala was perfect."