February 25, 2017

The 'first family' of Queen's

Three siblings who built a school's cultural and athletic legacy

Agnes Benidickson.

Let’s take a walk around campus.

We’ll start at Richardson Stadium, the football stadium over on West Campus. From there, walk east towards main campus.

Take a right when you reach University Ave. and you’ll soon find Richardson Hall, an imposing stone building that’s home to the principal’s office and most of Queen’s administration.

Keep heading south until you reach the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, the final stop on the walk and the on-campus art gallery.

Three buildings, each playing different roles in diverse aspects of Queen’s culture. Three buildings named for three siblings, all members of what’s easily the most influential family in the University’s history.

Agnes Etherington – born Richardson – and her brothers George and James Richardson, each left an indelible mark on Queen’s. The three siblings could easily stake a claim as Queen’s first family, but the legacy they left at Queen’s expands further.

The Richardson family’s wealth originated with the siblings’ grandfather, an Irish immigrant to Canada in the 1820s who made his fortune in the grain trade. The family remains one of Canada’s wealthiest and the connection between them and Queen’s continues to this day.

In April of 2014, the Richardson Foundation donated $5 million towards the revitalization of Richardson Stadium, the latest in a long history of donations to the school. While other donors have given larger gifts to the school, none have the historical relationship the Richardson family has.

“The Richardsons have been connected with Queen’s for three, nearly four generations now, so that’s a wonderful affiliation between them and the University,” said University Historian, Duncan McDowall.

It all starts with James, Agnes and George, three siblings who were more than just the scions of a Kingston businessman and more than just plaques and donations to Queen’s.

George was an athlete, a solider and a beloved man on Queen’s campus. Agnes was a patron of the arts, while James succeeded in business and administration. All three left separate stories that help tell the tale of their family’s history with the University.

George Richardson was the youngest of the three children, born 13 months after James. While he left his name on the school’s football stadium, he was also famous for his skills on the ice.

In stories about him, George was known for his sportsmanship. In one anecdote, according to the Queen’s encyclopaedia, the only penalty he ever received was mistakenly awarded, nevertheless Richardson accepted it, along with an apology later from the embarrassed referee.

“[He was] a big guy on the gridiron,” McDowall said of George. “You see the pictures of him and he looks like Rupert Brooke.”

A science student, he graduated in 1909. In 1906, the Queen’s men’s hockey team challenged the Ottawa Silver Seven for the Stanley Cup. While his team was trounced in the two-game series, Richardson — a left winger on the squad — was among the few Queen’s players to receive praise.

With the advent of World War I, Richardson enlisted, serving as lieutenant and later a captain. On February 9, 1916, while serving in Belgium, he was shot three times. According to his official death certificate, the bullets broke both his hips, and left him with a wound in his abdomen. George Taylor Richardson was dead at the age of 29.

A few days later, The Journal’s front page featured the news of his death, stating that “no man at college was so widely known and so thoroughly liked.”

From George’s death came one of the family’s first major gifts to the school. In 1920, James Richardson donated $50,000 to build a football stadium named in his brother’s memory. The stadium is now in its third iteration, but still bears the name it did 96 years ago.

What the stadium represents Queen’s athletic side, the gift from George’s sister can be said to hold the same level of reverence in the artistic community.

Agnes Etherington was a patron of the arts throughout her life and upon her death in 1954, the house she lived in on University Avenue was donated to the school. In 1957, it opened as the Agnes Etherington Art Centre.

“[The Richardsons] have a cultural vision for Queen’s,” McDowall said. “They don’t want it to just be a school, they want it to be a cultural place.”

Even today, the red brick building she once lived in remains part of the gallery that bears Agnes’ name.

Agnes’ husband, Frederick Etherington, also played a part in the Richardson dynasty at the school, serving as the Dean of Medicine during the 1930s and 1940s and is the namesake of Etherington Hall.

While George left his legacy in sport and Agnes in arts their older brother’s contribution to Queen’s stands in a legacy of governance and advocacy.

James Richardson became Chancellor in 1929, helping steer Queen’s through the years of the Great Depression. He had an active role in the hiring of Principal Robert Wallace in 1936 — who helped keep Queen’s afloat during the Depression.

According to McDowall, this level of active participation set a standard for future Chancellors, who still chair the committee selecting the school’s principal. A Queen’s graduate himself, James maintained an affinity for the school during his time in charge. According to an anecdote McDowall relayed from James’ daughter, Agnes Benidickson, as a child she would often hear her father humming Queen’s songs while shaving.

James remained Chancellor until his death in 1939. After his passing, his widow Muriel, son James, as well as Benidickson all served stints on the school’s Board of Trustees.

Just over 50 years after her father took up the position, Agnes became Queen’s first and only female Chancellor in 1980. She remains the only second-generation Chancellor in the school’s history.

Like her father, Benidickson took an active role in her position, becoming a key advocate for fundraising, according to McDowall. She spearheaded work to restore Summerhill and, in 2010, three years after her death, the University renamed the east wing of the building in her honour.

Like her father before her, Benidickson took great pride in her alma mater. McDowall shared a personal story of running into her when both lived in Ottawa.

“I used to play squash at the Westin Hotel and whenever I parked in the garage there was a car there and it had custom plates on it saying ‘Queen’s number one,’” he recalled. “One day I was coming down and Agnes Benidickson came out and I realized [the car] was Agnes Benidickson’s.”

“I think it’s safe to say that no other family has been so intimately associated with Queen’s as the Richardsons,” McDowall said. “This family has been here all along. They’re a very significant family here — with deep roots.”

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.