University of Calgary

Incredible Impact

Submitted by alumni on Thu, 11/06/2014 - 00:55.

Incredible Impact

Meet Geoff Cumming — the alumnus behind one of the largest single investments to a Canadian university and discover how his gift will transform medical research.
by Deb Cummings, Mike Fisher

Geoff Cumming, Photo by Carlos Amat

More Insights into Geoff Cumming

On weaknesses: Cumming admits: “I have so many. But, in particular, I wish I was more organized.” [The room he is in is, of course, beyond impeccable.] And I should live ‘more in the moment.’”

On regrets: “In some ways, I wish I had got involved in politics, because I am very interested in that,” he says. “But politics is a rough game and, although it should be the most noble profession in society — in guiding society — it’s not practised that way.”

On philanthropy: “I’ve had a lot of rewards in business and my personal life, but I would have liked to have done bigger things,” Cumming says. “This gift is a good example, but now I wish I had done more, and earlier.”

On favourite activities in New Zealand (where he spends a lot of time): It’s not unusual for Cumming to take a notepad and a half bottle of Kiwi riesling to the top of 101-metre-high Lion Rock on Piha, the sweep of New Zealand beach featured in The Piano. “I often sit up there, with the Tasman Sea crashing far below my feet and watch wave patterns,” he says. “If I haven’t had too much wine, I’ll make notes of what’s important in life and can become quite philosophical. I also like to go diving and spearfishing.”

On life as a flight path: “I think people live life the wrong way,” he says. “If you look at life like an airplane flight, you’ll see people in their teens and 20s grow rapidly — they are learning a lot, working hard — and are on a sharp climb. But, by the time they turn 30, their flight begins to level off. It’s as though the plane has reached altitude and stays there, forever. Then, at some point, they come in for a sharp landing. To me, a better image is that the plane goes up sharply, but, at 30, it doesn’t level off completely. The angle of ascent after 30 may be shallower, but you continue to grow, to learn, throughout your life. And then you come in on a modest angle. I would like to live that way.”

On retiring at 65: “I am not interested, at all,” Cumming says. “When Otto von Bismarck first introduced the modern pension plan, it was intended as a bonus for those who lived a long time — [life expectancy in 1889 was 48]. But, if you take care of yourself today, you could easily live to 90 or 100, if medicine continues to advance rapidly. Not only can society not afford to pay people for exceptionally long retirement periods, but I also think the notion of retiring at 65 is unfortunate.”

On lifelong learning: “I probably won’t do it, but I’d love to go back to school,” he muses. “Maybe I’d take architecture? It’s at the intersection of creativity — it combines engineering with the aspirations of society. Think of the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, illuminated at night — its beauty is staggering. The architect, [Cesar Pelli], gave something unique and inspirational to K.L., to Malaysia, and the world. He’s a very special man.”

On investing in potential: “I think it was Haiti ... I was on a street corner and I saw a bunch of guys in their early 20s, just loitering, doing nothing. And I thought, this is so sad,” says Cumming. “This is an hourglass of their life and an hourglass of society. These could be talented people and they are just drifting away. It was seeing situations like this that made me want my gift to go to something with long-term benefit, to help fund top university minds who need time to focus, to be free from the distraction of funding applications, in order to achieve their full potential. I can see this research taking 10, 20, even 30 years. But the objective is not the research — the objective is to achieve meaningful medical advances that will benefit the world. There are so many bright people with great potential. I hope they now have more resources to create wonderful and inspirational advances.”

On a sense of public purpose: “We live in a wonderful world and we owe part of our success to the society in which we live,” he says. “Everyone should want to give back — whether it’s volunteering, mentoring or a financial gift. I now feel like I’ve done the right thing — for me. And that I’ve honoured my parents, who were both involved in medicine. I have a very quiet happiness about it.”

By Deb Cummings