In May  1999, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra was cash-strapped and saddled with a massive debt. What the WSO needed was a champion, someone able to release the orchestra from the grip of insolvency. Up stepped W.H. “Bill” Loewen, who donated funds to help save the WSO from the prospect of oblivion. 

Today, the WSO still struggles to overcome its financial difficulties, but as long as individuals such as Loewen remain in the wings lending their support, the orchestra will continue as a valuable cultural institution in the city and province.

“When you hear someone talk about the importance of arts and culture to Winnipeg, let them know — if they are not already aware — how citizens such as Bill Loewen play an integral part, ensuring they remain vibrant and continue to flourish in the city,” said Bill Burns, the chairman of the Citizens Hall of Fame committee.

Burns had just announced Loewen was the 2008 inductee into the WinnipegREALTORS® Citizens Hall of Fame during a special ceremony at Tavern in the Park last Thursday evening in Assiniboine Park.

“I’m of the view that he is one of those strong unsung heroes who is not seeking to have his name in lights,” said Graeme Rowswell, a Winnipeg REALTOR® and member of the hall of fame committee, who nominated Loewen for this year’s award.

The Citizens Hall of Fame was established by WinnipegREALTORS® in 1986 to honour Winnipeggers who have made an outstanding contribution to the city’s quality of life. Loewen is the 35th inductee into the hall of fame. Among the inductees over the years have been mayors Stephen Juba and Bill Norrie, Premier Duff Roblin, writers Gabrielle Roy and Carol Shields, John Wesley Dafoe, Sister Geraldine MacNamara, Carl Ridd, Dr.  Bruce Chown, Leo Mol, Duff Roblin and Israel Asper. Essentially, the hall of fame is representative of a wide range of citizens all Winnipeggers can be proud of.

Loewen said he was surprised when Rowswell came to his office and informed him that he was being inducted into the hall of fame.

“It has been a pleasure and honour to help others,” said a modest Loewen at the special induction ceremony.

Burns said Loewen’s “dedication and generosity to the arts is music to the ears of countless arts connoisseurs.”

Loewen is a well-known patron of local art and culture, serving as a president and chairman of the WSO. In 1998, he received the Golden Baton from the organization in recognition of his many contributions.

Loewen’s emphasis on community has extended to the restoration and upgrading of Pantages Theatre as well as the historic Bank of Commerce building on Main Street, which is now the Millennium Centre, a multi-use non-profit centre.

Other cultural institutions such as the West End Cultural Centre and the St. Norbert Arts Centre have received support from the Bill and Shirley Loewen Foundation.

“We are blessed to have you among us Mr. Loewen,” added Burns.

While Loewen has received recognition for his contributions to the arts, he is perhaps best known by most Winnipeggers as the founder of Comcheq in 1968. The company he established evolved into a leading Canadian payroll service firm. Although he sold Comcheq to CIBC in 1992, Loewen retained the research and development division that led to the creation of Telpay Inc., a new generation of online bill payment services.

Loewen, an Order of Canada recipient, told those at the hall of fame ceremony that he started Comcheq with just $15,000. “I owe my greatest thanks to the business people of Winnipeg, who supported a young fellow who was asking for their help. The support of people in Winnipeg was absolutely outstanding,” he added.

Loewen is not unique among the Winnipeg businessmen who have made a significant contribution to the community’s quality of life. Among the past inductees into the hall of fame was the late Israel Asper, who made it his mission to “be worthy” and leave behind a legacy. “This city to me is the greatest town in the world,” he said when inducted into the hall of fame in 1999. “I live here exclusively by choice, but we can do better.” He also pledged that his children will “use my assets to try to make a difference in the community.”

It is a promise that has not been forgotten by his children. Gail Asper heads the Friends of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, a project that was conceived by her father.

Last year’s inductee, local businessman Robert Chipman, heads a family who developed the MTS Centre and brought the AHL’s Manitoba Moose to Winnipeg. Chipman is a past-president of the United Way and has been involved in multiple charities, as well as arts, education and sports organizations.

The portraitures of the past 34 inductees into the hall of fame — all sculpted in bronze by local artists — are now on view in the Formal Garden in Assiniboine Park to serve as a reminder to all what can be done when good people lead by example.

“It’s a wonderful, unique and special program that is a permanent tribute to what can be done in Winnipeg,” said Burns. “Think of what it would have been like to live in Winnipeg without the contributions of the people inducted in the hall of fame.”

Since the sculptures are along the roadway off the southeast entrance to the park, Burns and the hall of fame committee is contemplating a name change from the Citizens Hall of Fame to the Citizens Walk of Fame.

“It think that’s more appropriate,” Chipman said when the name change was first proposed in 2007.

The committee is also trying to reinstate the historical category for the hall of fame. Until discontinued a couple of years ago, historical inductees pre-dating 1950 included noted Winnipeggers such as Nellie McClung, E. Cora Hind, E.L. Drewry and William Gomez Fonseca.

Whatever its eventual name, the people who have been inducted into the hall of fame can always be considered the individuals who have stepped forward to make our city a better place in which to live, regardless of their field of endeavour. 

With the advent of the hall of fame 22 years ago, these local heroes are no longer “unsung.”