He had been working at INCO during the day so he could attend Laurentian at night.
Giving up his studies turned out to be a good decision, as Gerard eventually rose in the union's ranks to its top job. He was the Steelworkers International president from 2001 until his retirement last summer. You can read our interview with Gerard about his career from last June here.
Laurentian recognized him with an honorary doctorate in 1994.
Now, in celebration of his retirement, the Leo Gerard Legacy Fund has been created at Laurentian thanks to a generous financial contribution from United Steelworkers Canada and the Sudbury and District Labour Council.
Various bodies of United Steelworkers Canada helped make the fund a reality, including the National Office, District 6, and Locals 6500 and 2020.
The $33,500 pledge will go in part toward the biennial Leo Gerard Lecture on Workplace and Labour Studies, a series of presentations that will be free and open to the public.
The funds will also support a scholarship for students enrolled in the Workplace and Labour Studies program.
“It is kind of a humbling experience to have something named after you,” said Gerard, adding that it means a lot that it's an initiative of his union, along with Laurentian and the Sudbury labour council.
“I'll never forget that Sudbury is my hometown,” said Gerard, who moved back to the city for retirement.
About his “retirement” – Gerard jokes he's “practising” at that right now, as he still sits on a lot of boards, although he has been spending more time with his family.
As for the lecture series, Gerard said there is a real shortage of discussion by academics of labour topics such as income inequality.
“There's not enough discussion about how important that is to a strong, positive society,” he said.
And the scholarships will be a boon to students who may go on to work in professions such as health and safety.
“We're living in a time where it's even more expensive to go to school and try to get a degree,” Gerard said.
Joël Dickinson, dean of Laurentian's faculty of arts, said the university is “very grateful” for the contribution in Gerard's name.
“The United Steelworkers has been integral in placements for students in labour studies for years,” she said.
“They've provided many of our students opportunity to get hands-on experience within industry. The fact that they're giving back in a financial way as well is an added bonus for our students.”
Ken Neumann, national director for United Steelworkers in Canada, called Gerard a “labour icon,” and put the union in the position it's in today.
He said Laurentian raised the possibility of a Leo Gerard Legacy Fund with the union, and it didn't take long to say yes, as Sudbury is where Gerard's roots are.
“Wherever he went he always talked about his home local – he always had pride in regards to Local 6500 and the community,” Neumann said. “He's back home with his family, back with his children and grandchildren, so it's heartwarming to see that.”