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George and Helen Vari believed in TMU students

Helen and George Vari (Photograph Courtesy of Toronto Metropolitan University Archives)

Tireless champions of education who proudly made Canada their new home, the Honourable George W. Vari (1923 - 2010) and his wife Helen Vari (1931 - 2023) believed students are the key to building a nation’s future success and prosperity. 

“Our country depends on its youth to build the future,” Helen would say. “We came to Canada with nothing; Canada gave us everything. We are honoured and fortunate to give back to our beloved country.”

In the spirit of giving back, the Varis made a $5 million gift to Toronto Metropolitan University (then Ryerson University) in 2005 to enhance TMU’s capacity for innovation and economic development, and to provide pathways to help students realize their potential. Made through the George and Helen Vari Foundation, the gift was recognized through the naming of the Faculty of Engineering and Architectural Science’s (FEAS) new, state-of-the-art engineering and computing facility, the George Vari Engineering and Computing Centre.

Thanks to the Vari family, the George Vari Engineering and Computing Centre has welcomed and educated thousands of emerging engineers, been home to exploration at the cutting edge of research and innovation, and hosted countless special guests and industry professionals. The eye-catching facility spans almost an entire city block in downtown Toronto and stands as a cornerstone to the Vari legacy. 

Helen and George came to Canada after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and settled in Montreal, Quebec. George became a successful civil engineer and international real estate developer. George founded SEFRI, an international engineering and construction company that operated on five continents and was responsible for, among many other projects, building Europe’s tallest building at the time, the Tour Montparnasse in Paris. They credited their success to education and to the opportunities that Canada provided, and it was that belief and patriotism that led them to invest in strengthening access to education for students.

“Canada can have a wonderful future,” George said. “But to achieve our potential we must teach and learn, teach and learn. A country cannot live without engineers.”

In 2018, Helen donated an additional $1 million to FEAS to further strengthen access to education by funding entrance awards for engineering students. Well after George’s death, she remained committed to ensuring students of all backgrounds had opportunities to realize their potential. Helen and George understood that awards like this change lives. TMU is one of several Canadian universities at which the Vari Foundation established the George Vari Award for Good Citizenship. 

Helen also regularly attended the George Vari Innovation Conference on campus — an important event in the annual calendar for engineering students celebrating advancements in technology and entrepreneurship while fostering collaboration. A familiar figure to many in the building named for her husband, Helen was known to always greet students by telling them “You can do it!”

“Helen Vari was a true friend — to our students, to the university, and to me personally,” said Mohamed Lachemi, president and vice-chancellor, TMU. “She believed passionately in the transformational power of education, and she worked tirelessly to deepen the legacy of support for students she built with her husband George.”

A legacy of excellence and generosity

The George and Helen Vari Foundation was created in 1984 to support the Varis’ national and international philanthropic goals. Their generosity, though widespread, was particularly directed at education, health care, and the Canadian military. They have been honoured both in Canada and abroad for their steadfast support of philanthropic pursuits.

George became a Member of the Order of Canada in 1989, in part due to his work advocating for Canadian technology and expertise internationally, thereby contributing to the nation’s image abroad. In 1992, he was called to join the Security Intelligence Review Committee, and then called to be a lifetime member of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada. The Vatican invested George as a Knight of Saint Gregory; France appointed him to its Legion d’Honneur; and in 2002, he became a recipient of Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee Medal. He proudly accepted honorary doctorates from TMU and York University.

Additionally, Helen received honorary doctorates from six universities: TMU, York, Victoria University at the University of Toronto, Ontario Tech University, St. Francis Xavier University and Nipissing University. Due to her exceptional record as a philanthropist and volunteer, she received the Order of Canada in 2016. The French Government also awarded her with the Ordre National du Mérite and Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur for fostering France-Canada relations. Then in 2021, Helen was elevated to Grand Officier de La Légion d’Honneur, becoming one of only four individuals and the only woman in North America to hold the office.

Helen was also an Honorary Colonel of the Toronto Scottish Regiment, and an active supporter of Canada’s active and veteran military personnel. As the lead donor in building the Visitor Education Centre and the George Vari Gate entrance to the Vimy Foundation Centennial Park at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France, she became affectionately known as the “Empress of Vimy.” The Canadian Army presented Helen with The Commander Canadian Army Commendation and the Canadian Military awarded her with The Chief of the Defence Staff Commendation.

George and Helen’s way of life, characterized by altruism and generosity, serves as a testament to philanthropy’s ability to not only construct buildings but also nurture a nation and its people.

George Vari Engineering and Computing Centre at the southeast corner of Church and Gould Streets.