‘I’m so proud’: Asper Foundation cornerstone Levy retires
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Had Moses Levy decided to become one of the leaders of an Ontario community college, Winnipeg might be missing an internationally renowned museum.
Instead, Levy (known as Moe to almost everyone) accepted a job offer from media mogul Izzy Asper to become the first executive director of the Asper Foundation.
Through the years, Levy has worked on every project funded and spearheaded by the foundation, including the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. He retired March 1, at age 74, after “23-and-a-half years, literally to the day.”
“I received a phone call and was offered the job to become vice-president of St. Clair College (in Windsor, Ont.),” Levy said.
“Five minutes later, I received another call from the Asper Foundation. I’m glad Izzy hired me — my family didn’t want to move from here.”
Windsor’s loss was obviously Winnipeg’s gain; Asper’s daughter, Gail, called Levy an essential piece of the foundation. (Izzy Asper died in 2003, at age 71.)
“People don’t understand that even though the foundation was created 40 years ago, it wasn’t until my dad hired Moe that the programs got going,” she said.
“Every project was either delivered or created by Moe. It bugs me, as a very decorated person, that often the hard-working executives don’t get the recognition they deserve. We are going to celebrate his legacy.
“The city should know what the place would have looked like without Moe.”
Isha Khan, CMHR president and chief executive officer, said Levy was one of the key people in establishing the national museum in Winnipeg.
“We owe an immense debt of gratitude to all of the people who championed the museum in the early days,” Khan said. “Moe Levy is one of them.
“Anyone who comes through the doors here, or students to take a tour, owes some measure of gratitude to Moe Levy… He realized the vision of the late Izzy Asper, along with Gail. They moved and championed the museum being located here at a time when people couldn’t see a vision for a museum of human rights or having it here in Winnipeg.”
Before the foundation, Levy had worked as a managing partner with the province’s industry, trade and tourism department, lectured at the University of Manitoba’s school of business, and was CEO and president of the Canadian Heritage Co., one of the country’s largest retail catalogue companies.
Levy’s first day of foundation work was Sept. 1, 1999, and he never stopped working tirelessly on projects funded by the foundation – or by fundraising he put together – to create them and keep them sustainable.
Levy was only a few months into the job when, on Nov. 22, 2000, Izzy Asper shocked everyone with twin donations: $10 million to the Winnipeg Foundation and $10 million to the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba.
At the time, they were the two largest donations ever by an individual in the city.
The then-chairwoman of the Winnipeg Foundation said it meant it could now give $500,000 more in grants per year; the president of the Jewish Foundation said it had grown its endowment fund one-third larger all at once.
In the years to come, Levy created the Asper Foundation Human Rights and Holocaust Studies program, which has counted more than 14,000 students in grades 7 to 9 across the country in its 11-hour education program to learn about the Holocaust and travel, until 2015, to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and, since, to the CMHR.
He also organized Pooh Friendship Day in Assiniboine Park, an event which drew 50,000 children and adults, and was instrumental in creating the Asper Centre for Entrepreneurship at the University of Manitoba (now called the Stu Clark Centre for Entrepreneurship).
However, it is the CMHR, the fifth national museum, which Levy believes will be his biggest accomplishment.
“Every day, I drove to work and wondered is that a mirage?” he said. “I’m so proud with what we have accomplished.”
Gail Asper said she got most of the accolades for bringing the museum to existence after her dad died, but Levy did most of the work of keeping the project together and moving forward.
“It is Moe’s project, not mine,” she said, noting Levy not only put together the business plan, but established the Friends of the Museum, put together the content team, organized an international architecture competition, and made sure during numerous meetings that politicians of different levels of government and bureaucrats, continued to be on side with its creation.
All of it came after Izzy Asper had died, Gail Asper said.
CMHR opened its doors in 2014.
“If Moe had said the project wasn’t possible, it wouldn’t have gone ahead,” she said. “And it wasn’t even the only project he was doing. He is the master juggler, but he always knew how to focus on the big thing.”
Levy said he always saw his role as being behind the scenes.
“I’m not out there,” he said. “It is the family’s fund — it is their money. I got things done that needed to be done.”
Levy said he is already getting offers about what he could do next, but for now, he wants to take some time with family. He has three adult children and grandchildren; his wife of almost 46 years, Barbara, died in 2020.
“I honestly haven’t thought about what I’ll do,” Levy said. “I’m just really proud to have served here.”
Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.
Updated on Tuesday, March 7, 2023 9:48 PM CST: Fixes photo credits