Photo courtesy of Derek Riley.
Derek and Polly Riley’s legacy supports educational opportunities and the community they loved.
Derek Riley referred to his life with Polly, his wife of 62-years, as “the greatest love story ever told”. Their daughter Jeannie Senft says their marriage was a true partnership, focused on supporting each other, their family, and their community. Derek and Polly’s legacy will continue to ripple across our community for decades.
“They had great respect for each other, they would kid each other at times. They did everything together, which was just so lovely. Mom was the love of his life, and he was the love of hers,” Ms. Senft says.
John Derek Riley and Helena Day (Polly) Harris both studied at the University of Manitoba. They were married during the Second World War, while Derek was home on leave from the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm.
After the war, Polly supported them while Derek went back to school to become a chartered accountant. Derek went on to have a successful career, working his way up within the Hudson’s Bay Company, latterly as Chief Financial Officer, until he purchased Dominion Bronze and Iron Limited, which he eventually sold. Later, he was founding Chair of The North-West Company.
Together, they had four children: Jeannie, Derek, Leslie, and Debby. The couple prioritized time with each other, and with their children.
“Dad would always come home from work and mom and dad would have a martini together and that was their quiet time,” Ms. Senft fondly remembers. “Then we’d always have a family dinner… It was a great bonding experience for all of us.”
Both Mr. and Mrs. Riley played a prominent role in our community and were involved in volunteer and board work, devoting time and energy to many causes and organizations.
“They felt strongly that ‘to whom much is given, much is expected’. They were definite role models for us as children,” Ms. Senft says. “Certainly, in my life – and in my siblings’ – we try and give back to our communities as much as we can. We learned from mom and dad that this is something worthy to do.”
Both Mr. and Mrs. Riley loved sports; Polly favoured golf, badminton, and tennis, and amongst his many athletic achievements, Derek was a competitive oarsman who represented Canada at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland.
Mr. Riley chaired the rowing venue of the 1967 Pan Am Games in Winnipeg, and served as president of the Winnipeg Squash Club, Winnipeg Rowing Club and Winnipeg Winter Club. He led the campaign for the Winnipeg Rowing Club’s new boathouse, which bears the Riley name. Mrs. Riley served with the Junior League of Winnipeg, the White Cross Guild of the Winnipeg General Hospital, and Middlechurch Home of Winnipeg, amongst others. They were also supporters of the United Way and The Winnipeg Foundation.
As Chair of The North-West Company, Mr. Riley frequently traveled up north where he saw first-hand the poverty and disparity communities are faced with. Through The Winnipeg Foundation, the couple established the Polly and Derek Riley Bursary Fund, which supports students at the William Norrie Centre, and the Derek Riley Scholarship Fund at the University of Manitoba.
“He was a firm believer in education giving you a leg up; it was a starting point to leading a better life, a starting point to open up opportunities. He felt strongly that he wanted to support opportunities for education for Indigenous people.”
The couple also established a Community Fund at The Winnipeg Foundation, which supports the changing needs and emerging opportunities in our community.
“They felt The Foundation would know better than they, where funds could be most useful within the community.”
For his business acumen, athleticism and philanthropy, Mr. Riley was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2013, inducted into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame in 2009, and awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws by the University of Manitoba in 2017.
In Winnipeg, the Rileys had a tremendous network of friends and loved all our city had to offer. In their later years, despite the fact their children and beloved grandchildren did not live here, they would not leave.
“They, as a team, felt completely connected to Winnipeg,” Ms. Senft says.
Of all their incredible achievements, Ms. Senft is most proud of her parents’ impact on their family.
“The greatest legacy is the learnings and the teachings that they gave us; they led by example. The word integrity comes to mind – that was uppermost in both mom and dad; there’s a right way to do things, and there’s an honest way to do things, and that’s the way they should be done,” she says.
Mrs. Polly Riley passed away in 2007 after a struggle with pulmonary disease, and Mr. Derek Riley followed in 2018.
“They are enormously missed by family and friends,” Ms. Senft says.
Fund: Polly and Derek Riley Fund
Supports: Winnipeg’s changing needs and emerging opportunities
Fund: Polly and Derek Riley Bursary Fund
Cause: Literacy, Education and Employment
Supports: Scholarships for students studying Inner-City Social Work at University of Manitoba’s William Norrie Centre
First scholarship awarded: 2006
Total number of recipients: 215
Total amount awarded: $442,000
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This story is featured in the Spring 2019 issue of our Working Together magazine. Download or view the full issue on our Publications page.