Remembering Lady Violet Aitken and Dr. Fredrik Eaton | UNB
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Spring/Summer 2021

In Memoriam

Remembering Lady Violet Aitken and Dr. Fredrik Eaton

ALUMNI NEWS MAGAZINE | Spring/Summer 2021

UNB lost two of its former chancellors in February.

Lady Violet Aitken (LLD’90), who served as chancellor from 1982 to 1992 and as chancellor emerita thereafter, died on February 18 at the age of 94. Fredrik S. Eaton (BA’62, LLD’83), who succeeded her from 1993 to 2003, died two days later at age 82. Both were known for their exceptional dedication to the university, but they shared a great deal more in common.

The first official meeting between Dr. Eaton and Lady Aitken was likely in May 1983 when he was awarded an honorary degree at the Encaenia ceremony in Fredericton, over which she presided. However, chances are they had met before, as Dr. Eaton remembered encountering Lord Beaverbrook while he was a student in the late 1950s.  (“’The Beaver’ always seemed to be there at UNB. You could literally bump into him if your timing was right,” he once recalled.) And long before she became chancellor, Lady Aitken had made numerous visits to Fredericton in the 1950s and ‘60s in the company of her husband, Sir Max Aitken.

Lady Aitken, fondly known to the UNB community as ‘Vi,’ was the third member of the Aitken family to hold the chancellorship, which began in 1947 with the appointment of Lord Beaverbrook as UNB’s first modern-day chancellor.  He served until his death in 1964 and was succeeded by his son, Sir Max Aitken, who was chancellor from 1966 until 1976 when ill health prevented him from continuing.  His wife, Lady Aitken, took up the role six years later, coming several times a year from her home in England to participate with grace, wit and aplomb in graduation ceremonies and other special events on UNB’s two campuses. In keeping with family tradition, she also took an active interest in the Beaverbrook Art Gallery and The Playhouse.

Dr. Eaton, scion of the T. Eaton department store family, enrolled in UNB in 1958. Memorable among his classmates, his many activities included the Students’ Representative Council, winter carnival, the Red ‘n’ Black Revue and management of the men’s hockey team. He was the first in his family to earn a university degree and went on to become president and chairman of the family’s iconic business enterprise. In 1991, he was appointed Canada’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, based in London, which brought him back into Lady Aitken’s orbit. 

At a luncheon at the Canadian High Commission in 1993, the Queen Mother sought to introduce Dr. Eaton to Lady Aitken.  She replied, “We’ve met.  Why he’s the one who’s pinched my job, Your Majesty.”

Despite their privileged backgrounds, both Lady Aitken and Dr. Eaton were modest about and appreciative of their association with UNB. At the awarding of her honorary degree in 1990, Lady Aitken observed, “As chancellor, I am merely the icing on top of what is a pretty large cake.  I get all the glory while the president does the real work.”

Three years later at his installation, Dr. Eaton remarked, “I am happy to say that UNB made me. Like many young people I came here expecting everything to go my way. Not surprisingly, it did not. By the time I left I knew that we are what we make of ourselves. In the end we have no one to blame but ourselves. Many people to thank, but only one to blame.”

During the 20 years of their chancellorships, support for the university was paramount to Lady Aitken and Dr. Eaton.  In 1982, in keeping with the family’s past benefactions, Lady Aitken announced a $1 million gift from the Beaverbrook Canadian Foundation, of which she was a trustee, to the Third Century Fund Campaign representing 10 per cent of its goal.  Many gifts followed to the faculty of law, Ethel Singer Hall, the libraries and scholarships.

In 1994, Dr. Eaton stepped up to chair The Venture Campaign which raised $43 million for the university. Over the ensuing years, gifts from his family and their foundation supported the Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society, the Eaton Multimedia Learning Centre, the UNB-Queen’s Belfast Exchange Program, the libraries, various scholarships and rings for members of the championship men’s hockey team. 

Dr. Eaton also contributed to the completion of the Chancellors’ Room in the Wu Conference Centre in Fredericton. Two portraits share a wall in that room — one of Lady Violet Aitken by her stepdaughter Lynda Aitken (1998) and one of Fredrik Stefan Eaton by acclaimed Canadian artist Ken Danby (2003)— a lasting tribute to these two devoted patrons of UNB.

Lady Violet Aitken's obituary. 

Fredrik S. Eaton's obituary.

(Images courtesy of UNB Archives & Special Collections. Photo credit Lady Violet Aitken: Dorothy Scott/Daily Gleaner, Photo credit Fredrik Eaton: Joy Cummings-Dickinson, UNB Media Services)