By Jennifer Matthews
On the east end of the back field at Trinity College you’ll find a woodpile. And depending on the day, you might also find Trinity’s Bursar, Geoff Seaborn, out there, axe in hand, splitting logs.
While wood chopping is not part of the official job description for Trinity’s Bursar, it’s just one (particularly literal) example of the type of hands-on Bursar Seaborn has been for the College for nearly 26 years. And since log-splitting skills won’t be expected of his successor after he retires this June, catching a fleeting glimpse of Trinity’s woodsman may soon be a thing of the past. Geoff Seaborn ’73, however, is not likely to be forgotten.
LIFELONG TRINITY CONNECTION
Seaborn’s connection to the College began with his grandfather, a graduate of the class of 1898. A succession of aunts and uncles also attended, and his mother and father met while they were students at Trinity.
Despite his ancestors’ history with the College, when Seaborn arrived from Ottawa as an undergrad (he studied math and philosophy), he felt like a stranger—but not for long. Residence, he says, is a “great social melting pot,” and he “got involved with everything.” In his fourth year he was Male Head of College.
As tempting as it might be to say that Seaborn “never really left” Trinity, it wouldn’t be accurate. Upon his graduation in 1973 he returned to Ottawa, wrote his civil service exams and spent the next decade working in government, including a secondment with then-Minister of Transport Jean-Luc Pepin, a role he describes as “fun, stimulating work.”
The 1980s brought a move to Montreal, marriage to his wife, Jan, and then a move to Toronto, where Seaborn completed his MBA at York University. Once he was back in Toronto he rekindled his Trinity connection, volunteering on the College’s Finance Committee.
TRINITY’S 10TH BURSAR
In 1990, Seaborn became Trinity’s 10th Bursar, following George Shepherd’s retirement after 30 years of service to the College. “He was legendary,” Seaborn recalls.
“I was totally dismayed when during my first term as Provost George Shepherd announced his retirement,” remembers Dr. Robert Painter, Trinity’s 11th Provost and one of five Provosts Seaborn has worked with. “George had been a pillar of stability in the College and it was difficult to imagine how he could be replaced. As it turned out Geoff filled the shoes admirably and he too has been a source of great strength and wisdom in the College administration, negotiating the many challenges posed by changes in government policy, the stock market, and U of T.”
In the years following his transition from George Shepherd, Seaborn found a way to make the Bursar role his own. Marty Hilliard, Trinity’s Controller since 1983, describes Seaborn as having “endless energy” and a “creative, lively mind.”
“Accounting was not his forte, but Geoff dedicated himself to learning the numbers side of things, including the pension side of the business,” says Hilliard.
“I was president of Ryerson at the time I was volunteering on the Trinity board,” says Terry Grier ’58, a former Chair of the Trinity Board of Trustees. “I always felt the College was lucky to have Geoff. The clarity and eloquence with which he could present the financials to the College’s stakeholders was truly impressive.”
Characteristically modest, Seaborn says he is proud of having maintained the College’s finances in “tolerably good control.” He points to the pension plan in particular, which has stayed healthy due to a “careful, risk-averse” approach throughout fluctuating markets. “When I started here, few of Trinity’s service workers were part of the pension plan,” he says. “Now all are members. The plan has become a real asset to the College.”
Over the past 26 years a number of large capital projects have been completed under Seaborn’s leadership. Among them are the John. W. Graham Library (as part of the Munk Centre, done in partnership with U of T), the Buttery renovations, the Centre for Ethics in the Larkin Building, the restoration of Strachan Hall and the main College kitchen, and the construction of the new Trinity Archives, which will be completed after Seaborn’s official retirement.
“I’ve seen myself as a steward of Trinity’s rich architectural heritage,” says Seaborn. Nowhere was that more true than in the restoration of Strachan Hall. “It still looks the same but now has this amazing modern kitchen operating in the background. Strachan is the heart of the College for many alumni, particularly those who attended after the 1970s when everyone started eating together there, and I’m proud of the restoration work we did.”
Accessibility has been a primary focus of some of the more recent capital projects at the College, including the construction of a mini-lift, outside the Divinity Common Room (leading up to Strachan Hall), and large enough to accommodate a wheelchair and attendant. And this spring work was under way on a new elevator, located outside the Trinity Chapel and providing easy access to the new Archives space below and Seeley Hall above. As always, great care was taken by Seaborn and team to ensure that these muchneeded modern additions were seamlessly integrated into the College’s historic architecture.
A GREENER COLLEGE
A smile comes over his face when the subject of the College’s sustainability initiatives comes up.
“The College is greener today than when I arrived,” says Seaborn, who is known for biking to and from work each day. “First credit for that goes to the students. And then to Tim Connelly [Director of Facilities Services]—he and I have made a good team.”
In fact, the College has won a number of awards for its green initiatives since a group of students formed the Trinity Environmental Club (TEC) in 2007, and approached Seaborn to ask for his support in building a green roof on St. Hilda’s College.
“We had a vision to become the greenest historical college in the world,” says Naomi Jehlicka ’10, a founding member of the TEC. “Geoff quickly became our mentor. He understood how Trinity worked and how the TCM [Trinity College Meeting] worked, and he helped us to move things forward.”
Following that green roof project, the College established the Trinity Environmental Protection Committee to co-ordinate student, alumni, faculty and staff efforts toward the greening of the College. Trinity has since become a leader in sustainability practices on the U of T campus and beyond, installing solar panels, banning bottled water, converting to low-flow toilets, building systems for storm water and kitchen heat reclamation, incorporating geothermal heating and cooling as well as modernized air conditioning systems, planting trees and even adding urban beehives. The results are measurable: The College has seen a 40-per-cent reduction in water consumption and a 25- to 30-per-cent drop in utilities consumption since 2009.
When asked what he will miss most about Trinity, Seaborn doesn’t hesitate. “The students. They are ‘scary smart,’ and most are so eager to get involved. I’ve enjoyed the challenge of keeping up.”
For many students, Seaborn was an important mentor. “He talks to 17-year olds as though they are worthwhile contributors as adults. It was formative for me,” says Jenn Hood ’06, Head of Arts ’04-’05 and current Chair of the St. Hilda’s College Board of Trustees. “He always helped you see the way to make something happen.”
“You knew when you went to Geoff it was safe,” adds Jehlicka. “TCM could be intimidating, but Geoff never so. He could find humour in any situation, and he was always even-keeled, even in times of stress.”
“I remember when a third-year classmate and I had volunteered to plan Frosh Week,” says Rev. Jesse Parker, Co-Head of College ’05 and Co-Head of Divinity ’11. “We suddenly realized we had no idea what to do and that we were going to need money. We went to Geoff’s office in a panic. I have never felt such relief in my life! He put us at ease right away and helped us pull everything together.”
So what’s the story with the wood pile? “It’s a way of getting exercise and blowing off steam for me,” says Seaborn with a shrug. The wood is put to good use in the many working fireplaces in the College, he adds, including for Wednesday High Tables and the Senior Common Room. And some students have working fireplaces in their rooms, as he did in his third and fourth years as an undergrad. “Many of them have never built a fire before and they’re excited to try, so we walk through that together.”
For Seaborn, his Trinity career has been punctuated by a wide variety of people and projects in a place “small enough to allow you to feel some ownership over things.” But the main reason he has stayed so long, he says, is because “people here care. We share a tremendous sense of pride in our College, in its reputation, its uniqueness.”
The answer to “what’s next?” is not immediately apparent to our outgoing Bursar, whose focus is still clearly on the College. “I don’t know,” he says. “I’d like to visit some of our national parks.”
Then he adds with a smile, “And I’ll probably go to the cottage and chop some wood.”
THE GEOFF SEABORN STUDENTS’ FUND
When Gerry Noble ’81 learned of Geoff Seaborn’s upcoming retirement, he polled a few other Trinity alumni about their interest in contributing to a special fund to honour the Bursar’s legacy with the College. The response was an immediate “Yes!” from all involved. “We raised $25,000 in a week,” says Noble, Chair of the Trinity Finance Committee. “That’s how well Geoff is regarded. It was the easiest fundraising I have been involved with.”
“I first met Geoff as a parent,” Noble continues. “All three of my children attended the College and I learned through them how important he was to students. He was a tremendous source of information and help, and they all loved him.” Over the years, Noble says, his children and others spoke of Seaborn quietly helping students with bus fare for a trip home, printing fees for reports, or money for books, often from his own pocket.
“The Geoff Seaborn Students’ Fund will help students in the same way that Geoff has done unselfishly over the past 25 years,” says Noble. “Payment out of the fund is not tied to academic or other achievements— it is made based on an assessment of the student’s need and meant to fill little gaps that fall outside of formal student support channels. I remember what it was like to go without when I was a student, and these small amounts can make a tremendous difference at a critical time.”
The $25,000 endowment will yield approximately $1,000 per year to provide students with small amounts of cash when it is needed.
For more information, please contact Alana Silverman, Executive Director, Development and Alumni Affairs, at email@example.com or call 416-978-0407.