Niagara-on-the-Lake has lost one of its most beloved and respected residents, mourned by a large circle of friends and admirers.
Donna Scott, recognized with the Order of Canada for her entrepreneurial spirit and business acumen, died March 13, following a stroke.
Scott, along with her husband Hugh Farrell, the love of her life for more than 40 years, had another love – the town they called home for the last three decades.
At that stage of her life, retired from a long and distinguished career, notably as founder and publisher of Flare, Canada’s first fashion magazine, she turned her attention to what she could do for her community.
Scott had great friends here, including Bluma Appel. Both from Toronto, both philanthropists, Appel had moved to Niagara-
on-the-Lake and convinced her friend she should join her.
Scott soon became a force in the community in the best way possible, using her many business and people skills to further important causes, including as co-chair of the NOTL team that raised $2.8 million for the new St. Catharines hospital site. That won her the 2014 Chamber of Commerce Spirit of Niagara Award for Community Leadership, but she was the recipient of many awards, both in her career and for her community involvement.
In retirement from business, she served for a time as chair of the Canada Council for the Arts, and was a board member of several organizations related to arts and education.
However, although she was much admired because of her many significant career and public accomplishments, Scott’s ultimate gift, the one that will likely most be remembered, was her extraordinary, unforgettable presence.
Whether you were part of her closest circle of friends, or had a brief conversation with her, there was no denying her charisma, her formidable sense of who she was, and her indomitable spirit.
Debi Pratt, one of her closest friends, quotes Scott’s obituary the was published in several newspapers, in Niagara and Toronto, and is echoed by all who knew her: When Donna walked into a room everyone knew she was there. She had such a presence about her.”
Once Scott became part of the Niagara-on-the-Lake community, recalls Pratt, “she said, “what can I do for this town I’m so privileged to live in?”
And then she dug in and set to work. The arts were always important to her, as was history. Deciding that some of the important local organizations could benefit from be promoted together, she founded the Historical Site Alliance, to support the Niagara Historical Museum, McFarland House, Willowbank, RiverBrink Art Museum, the Niagara Pumphouse Arts Centre, and the Laura Secord Homestead. That was a concept that was mentioned several times during a recent envisioning session for the museum, but Scott, with her vision and business sense, actually took a step in that direction. She had a brochure produced with the intention of helping each organization. “That was her way of leading people to the history of Niagara-on-the-Lake, which was so important to her,” says Pratt. “She didn’t understand why they weren’t working together. She asked me about the work I did to tie the wineries together, to market and promote them together, and it made sense to her to do the same for these organizations.”
She also spearheaded the purchase and refurbishment of the bells of St. Mark’s Church.
In recent years, she also wanted to help the Friends of Laura Secord, by speaking at public appearances about the Canadian hero, but that wasn’t to be, says Pratt, although she was telling people at recent small gatherings of friends that they have to support Laura Secord and spread the message about her importance.
She often seemed ahead of her time, was the “first woman” in many of her accomplishments, she loved tackling challenges, and, says Pratt, “to her, it didn’t matter if you are a man or woman, or who you were. She just wanted to know you were capable.”
She also loved her parties, and Pratt found herself organizing Scott’s last large gatherings, including one she wanted on her beautiful deck. She was living with Alzheimer’s — had been for some time — and would often repeat herself. She was still as strong-minded as ever, accustomed to being in control.
Pratt tells a story about Scott wanting a large dining room table pulled up to the glass sliding doors, to act as a bar. People would gather outside, but be handed their drinks from the inside bar.
Pratt said many times in the lead-up to the party, the table had to be moved to the doors, so Scott could visualize drinks being served from there to the deck, and then it had to be moved back into place.
“We joked about it being the first party ever with a drive-through bar,” says Pratt.
And with her friends making “suggestions” about how things could be done, such as the food being served, and a guest list of about 50
people, Scott was able to have a large group of her friends around her. And with gentle prodding from Pratt, used the occasion to give one last toast to her beloved “Hughie,” who died in March, 2017.
“She got a little teary, as she always did when she spoke of Hughie, but when she got up to speak, it was about Hughie but also about her. It ws Donna the hostess we knew from before. It felt like a bit of a farewell of the Donna we had known.
The party fell on a nice summer day, Ellie Forbes from Simpson’s Pharmacy was the bartender, Robin Howe, with help from Louise Howe, the caterer, “all people who were part of her comfort zone,” and it was a great occasion, with lots of photos put into an album for Scott to pick up and reminisce.
That was last summer, and by the fall, says Pratt, “we could see changes.” Friends began visiting her at home rather than taking her out, afraid of her falling.
“She still needed her community, and friends rallied around. I started taking her egg salad sandwiches, which she loved, and I learned two things. One, take something to eat, and two, she loved to look at pictures and reminisce about the people and events of her past. You just had to pick up an album — there was always one near her chair —and she’d be happy. Visitors started bringing pictures for the album.
Pratt organized two more gatherings of Scott’s friends — she had planned to continue them for as long as she could, because Scott took so much pleasure in having people around her, and that feeling was reciprocated.
“Donna cared about her friends, and they knew that. You can’t forget when someone cares about you, and that is going to be reciprocated Her friends knew she cared about them, and it was our time to say Donna needed us. It was a reciprocal caring.”
Pratt says she and Scott “talked and laughed for the last three years of her life. We talked about fashion, funny things, silly things, and we would laugh. When she got a little down, we could always find a topic that would bring her up.”
It was a “sad day” when her friends and her community lost her, says Pratt, “but Donna lived a great life. She brought out the best in people.”