If McGill University awarded a power couple prize, it would justifiably have gone to Blema and Arnold Steinberg.
They devoted virtually their entire adult lives to their beloved alma mater. She was a distinguished professor and he worked in the university’s administration, serving for a time as chancellor. Both contributed their time and money to the institution.
Together, they gave a century’s worth of service to the university and its affiliated institutions.
In an unusual gesture, the Steinbergs were honoured posthumously by the Friends of the McGill Library at its 18th annual general meeting on Dec. 10.
The Friend of the Year award is bestowed annually to individuals or groups who “show unwavering commitment to the vision, mission and goals of the Friends of the Library and McGill Library as a whole.”
Arnold Steinberg, who served as chancellor from 2009-2014, died in Dec. 2015. Blema Steinberg, who was a political science professor for 40 years, passed away in January.
Antonia Maioni, the dean of the faculty of arts, said she was grateful to prof. Steinberg for paving the way for women in what was a male-dominated academy, especially in the field of political science, the discipline they shared.
After completing a PhD at McGill in 1961, Blema Steinberg (née Salomon) began her teaching career and eventually became a full professor. She retired in 2001 with the title of professor emerita.
Maioni recalled that when she came to McGill in 1994, there were only three other political science professors, and only one full one – Blema Steinberg.
“She was an inspiration to all,” said Maioni, for the quality of her teaching and research, the scope of her published works and her commitment to the faculty.
“Blema was a voice of reason and clarity; she had a disarming wit and could stand her ground and hold her own.”
On a more personal level, Maioni noted that, in 1998, she was the first woman in the faculty to give birth since Steinberg did three decades earlier, which caused quite a stir at the time.
Colleen Cook, the Trenholme dean of libraries, spoke of Arnold Steinberg as a valued collaborator. Although he had retired as chancellor, Arnold Steinberg was still actively engaged with McGill affairs by the time Cook arrived there in 2011.
What she appreciated most about him was his reassuring presence. “He helped me navigate the bureaucratic waters.…Whenever there was something tricky or I was confused, he would reassure that all would be right,” she said. “He gave realistic advice with an optimistic slant.”
He could have declined to take on more responsibilities as chancellor emeritus, but Clark said Arnold Steinberg “jumped at the chance to work” on preliminary plans for an ambitious modernization and expansion of the library and archives. He shared the vision that a world-class university needed a library to match.
“He went to all the meetings,” she said. “He was not an easy sell – he questioned everything,” which was typical of his attention to detail.
Arnold Steinberg came from the business world. He had been the chief financial officer of the eponymous supermarket chain founded by his grandmother, Ida Steinberg, in 1917. After the family sold the business in 1989, Arnold Steinberg became a partner in an investment holding company.
Throughout his active career, he gave a considerable amount of his time to McGill, from which he graduated with a bachelor of commerce degree in 1954.
He was especially concerned with public health and was the founding chair of the McGill University Health Centre. After 10 years on the board of governors of McGill, he was named its 18th chancellor, the first Jewish person to hold the post.
In their later years, one of Blema and Arnold Steinberg’s major philanthropic interests was the Steinberg Centre for Stimulation and Interactive Learning at McGill, which was the first training facility for health-care professionals of its kind in Canada when it opened in 2006.
The Friends of the Year award was presented by McGill principal Suzanne Fortier to the Steinbergs’ daughters, Donna Stern and Margot Steinberg, who came in from New York. Fortier described “the great joy” the couple took from their service and generosity to McGill.
“What a legacy.… It continues to permeate the university,” Fortier said.
Their daughters agreed, saying there was hardly a family dinner that did not include talk of McGill.
Their brother, Adam Steinberg, who passed away in April, was remembered by Marc Weinstein, McGill’s vice-principal of university advancement. Before his untimely death, Weinstein said that Adam Steinberg carried on his parents’ philanthropic legacy in his own way by helping some of the most needy in Montreal.