Students First... and a 1960 Chevy Convertible

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Manfred Conrad in the foreground on the Renison garden bridge. Students can be seen in conversation in the background.

At first blush, it is difficult to see a connection between Renison’s Students First appeal, which was launched in November of 2021, and a 1960 white Chevy Impala convertible with red fins and red leather interior, manufactured in the main Assembly Plant in Flint, Michigan in 1959. Please bear with me.

We all know that the past two years have been challenging; to say so is to state the obvious. What is not known to everyone is how the pandemic has disproportionately affected students. Many have been unable to find part-time or summer employment for the past two years; others have discovered that anticipated family support was no longer possible.

In order to ensure that essential funding remains available to our students, the Students First campaign was launched. Our goal is to raise $200,000 per year for two years - $400,000 in total – this sum will be available to Renison students in the form of scholarships, awards and bursaries.

$200,000 per year is a large sum to raise and we knew we would need help. We met with our Chancellor, Manfred Conrad, and he immediately pledged $100,000 towards our goal. Thanks to your support, we have now raised $165,000: we are 42% to goal.

The Manfred and Penny Conrad Family Foundation is well known in the Kitchener / Waterloo community for supporting healthcare, the arts, disaster relief and education. Manfred was inducted into the Waterloo Region Entrepreneur Hall of Fame in 2015 in recognition of the generous contributions that he and his family have made to enhance and lift up our community.

You may be wondering what this has to do with a 1960 Chevy Impala convertible, ivory white with red leather interior and punctuated with scarlet red fins. We’ll get there.

Manfred was born in the Saarland province of Germany, bordered by France and Luxembourg. There are parts of Saarland that are so magical and picturesque, rich with forests, winding rivers and sweeping valleys, that one almost expects Julie Andrews to twirl into the picture, followed by the Von Trapp children.  But Saarland is primarily an industrial state, known for its production of cast iron, sheet metal, tools, wire, coal and its biproducts. Manfred and his family lived a modest existence in a small, industrial town more suited to a Dickens novel than a motion picture musical starring Christopher Plummer.

Photo of a 1960s red Chevy Impala.At 17, Manfred already had his sites set on Canada. His older brother, Henry, had emigrated to Canada two years earlier and was working in Kitchener as a house painter. A family friend of Manfred’s father had also moved to Canada and returned to Germany for vacation with photos from his new life in Canada. One photo in particular stands out in Manfred’s memory. It was taken in front of the floral clock at Niagara Falls; the family friend was leaning against a brand-new Chevy Impala with fins as big as surf boards. Two days after his visit, Manfred was at the Immigration Office in Cologne; two weeks after his 18th birthday, Manfred arrived in Quebec, gradually making his way to Kitchener.

Like so many dreams, Manfred’s proved elusive. Success did not come overnight. Far from it. His first job was mixing cement for Superior Stone on Victoria Street in Kitchener; long days were spent casting heavy door arches and chimney caps. He eventually went into business with his brother, Henry, and painted houses for a decade and a half. Handy with a hammer and a wrench, Manfred found himself buying homes, fixing them up, and selling them for a profit. Days were long and challenging, but he had a knack for real estate. Gradually, this became a much more reliable source of income, as painters and carpenters and other finishers were always the last to be paid by contractors; too often, they were not paid at all. He sees this determination to succeed, to make a better life, in the goals of our students. “Many Renison students are destined for careers as social workers, youth workers, addiction counsellors and mental health professionals; I am inspired by their selflessness and dreams of a better world.”

“ I see the work that the English Language Institute at Renison is doing to assist international students, and I want to help. I hear the stories of sacrifice and hardship that Renison students are facing financially during our Board meetings, and I want to help make a difference in their lives. I want them to achieve their dreams.”

Manfred Conrad, Chancellor, Renison University College

Manfred downplays the significant role that he plays in supporting Renison and the K/W community. “It’s all Penny,” Manfred claims, “Penny and the kids. They opened my eyes to the needs in the community.” But it’s obvious that Manfred’s personal story, combined with his many years on Renison’s Board, meeting Renison students, has helped to inform his choices.

“Arriving to Canada at 18, I had already completed my formal education. I had more of a chance to fly to the moon than to be accepted into university. I spoke nearly no English – only French and German. It is very difficult to achieve your goals when you don’t speak the language. I see the work that the English Language Institute at Renison is doing to assist international students, and I want to help. I hear the stories of sacrifice and hardship that Renison students are facing financially during our Board meetings, and I want to help make a difference in their lives. I want them to achieve their dreams.”   

Some dreams, like the ’60 Chevy, are okay to park; others, like being a champion for access to education and equal opportunities for students, are worth driving for. Thank you, Manfred, for putting students first.

This story was originally published as part of the 2022 edition of Renison Reports
 
For more information about the Students First campaign, please visit the Students First page
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