Backstage: Building bridges all in a day’s work for Dorothy Gray

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Public Relations Liaison Michael D. Reid and College co-founder Janis Dunning reflect on a cherished College tradition that continues in its late namesake’s memory.
Pictured above: Dorothy Gray with Studio Ensemble students and College co-founder Janis Dunning at a Day of Bridge in 2013.


It’s been four years since Dorothy Gray left this world at age 96, but that hasn’t stopped the legendary volunteer known locally as the “Daffodil Lady” from dealing the cards for one of her favourite causes.

Twenty years after what would come to be known as The Dorothy Gray Day of Bridge began as a fall fundraiser for the Canadian College of Performing Arts, this cherished tradition continues in its late namesake’s memory. It became so popular that an annual spring edition was added in 2002.

“That’s what we’re on this Earth for, to help one another,” the Colwood woman who had been volunteering since the Second World War in her home province of Nova Scotia once told the Times Colonist.

Gray, who started Well Baby clinics for Victoria Order of Nurses in Nova Scotia, later moved to Windsor, Ontario, where her late husband Harry worked for Ford Motor Co., and relocated to Victoria in 1980.

A year later, the lifelong volunteer delivered flowers to hospital patients and became Victoria General Hospital Auxiliary’s first president, soliciting donations for a helicopter pad and automatic doors.

She earned the “Daffodil Lady” moniker because of her 60 years of service raising funds for the Canadian Cancer Society, which she assisted locally through all-day charity bridge tournaments and luncheons at Royal Colwood Golf Course.

Gray and her committee designated the Canadian College of Performing Arts in 2001 as the sole recipient of funds that she had raised at her annual bridge events for various charities at Royal Colwood since 1992. Previous beneficiaries included the Canadian Cancer Society, Priory Hospital, the Victoria/Vanuatu Physicians Project, Vic High’s school music program, Victoria Hospice and David Foster Foundation.

Her many awards for volunteerism included being honoured with the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal.

Gray’s devotion to CCPA began with Spirit of a Nation, the successful youth ambassador job training and performance program created by Jacques Lemay and Janis Dunning in the early 1990s and presented by the Canadian Heritage Arts Society, the non-profit that owns and operates the College they co-founded.

Gray was deeply moved after seeing the musical celebrating Canadian culture, history and languages that toured nationally and was performed at Confederation Centre for the Arts in Charlottetown for four years, with summer shows later presented in Victoria at Ship’s Point and Centennial Square.

“The City had asked us to help with the re-invigoration of Centennial Square,” Dunning recalled. “Dorothy saw Spirit of a Nation and she was elated and asked if we had any students from the Maritimes. We said that we did, and then she said ‘Can I visit with them?’ Do you think they’d mind?’”

In 1998, just as Dunning and Lemay were getting the College off the ground, Gray said she’d like to find a way to support the students. She wasted no time making that a reality in lock-step with Dunning.

“She was 100 per cent about the students,” recalled Dunning, who became close friends with her after Gray invited the College’s co-founders to join her when she would take young Spirit of a Nation performers to dinner at Royal Colwood, where Gray’s charity fundraisers were well-established.

“Dorothy said she’d like to do this as an annual fundraiser and dinner for the College,” recalled Dunning, who with Gray became the driving force for the all-day affairs. Dunning suggested they relocate the fall event to the College, where supporters would play cards in what is now the Performance Hall.

“It was then Studio A, and right from the garden door all the way to the edges of the stage was open, with those beautifully vaulted ceilings and shiny hardwood floors. It was pretty exemplary,” said Dunning, recalling the aroma emanating from hundreds of daffodils in the sun-drenched venue.

A bonus for bridge players are visits by students who mingle and share their musical talents.

Gray, she recalled with a laugh, agreed to switch venues on the condition they would be able “to find the right sandwiches” and raise even more money for the College that in its infancy had captivated her.

“Our hearts were in a similar place,” said Dunning. “She said she loved how hardworking Jacques and I were and how clear our goal was, and that people from all cultures could come to this place.”

While Dunning admired Gray because of her burning desire to make a difference, the College’s purposeful patron could also be very “forthright” and no-nonsense, she recalled with a laugh.

“She wasn’t an easy person to just sit around and have tea with. She was very much a businesswoman. The business of her life was making a difference. Her heart was entirely about ‘What do they need?’”

She said Gray would spend weeks going door-to-door to local businesses, including daffodil supplier Vantreight Farms, to solicit donations. She would insist on speaking to the manager, expressing her gratitude, and explaining the effect their support had on students through scholarships and programs.

This dedicated philanthropist and volunteer would also take volunteers for lunch at her own expense to Blue Crab, one of her favourite restaurants, to express her gratitude to them, said Dunning.

When Dunning and Lemay stepped down as the College’s chief administrators in 2010, Dunning was delighted, she said, that the couple’s successors – former Artistic and Education Director Darold Roles and Managing Director Ron Schuster – decided to keep the initiative going, naming it The Dorothy Gray Day of Bridge.

“I was so pleased about that, and that Dorothy was still alive to see her legacy recognized like that,” she said. Dunning’s appreciation continued when current Managing Artistic Director Caleb Marshall and Director of Education and Programming Heather Burns decided to uphold the tradition and celebrate its 20th anniversary when they assumed those positions last year.

Although Dunning isn’t a big bridge player herself, she says she can understand its appeal and longevity.

“My mother tried it on me once and I said, ‘OK, this is too mentally challenging,” she said, laughing.
“But it gets people together and keeps their brains sharp. And usually the cakes are great!”

The spring edition of The Dorothy Gray Day of Bridge takes place Monday, March 11 from 10 am – 3 pm. at the CCPA Performance Hall, 1701 Elgin Rd. Admission is by donation, with a suggested $25 minimum, and includes a light lunch, small silent auction and performances by CCPA students. Contact Nicole at 250-595-9970 to reserve seats, or email