From ‘nut house’ to ‘gem,’ with help from a Blue Jay

Please enjoy this article that was originally printed in the Globe and Mail. You can see the original here.

Roy MacGregor

Monday, May. 25, 2009 07:51PM EDT

You get used to it, he says. First few times here you cannot help but be struck by the haunted eyes and the faces that say more than a mouth ever could.

The rich lawns might comfort but the cold thick stone in the remaining walls remind, constantly, that this began, more than 150 years ago, as the “Provincial Lunatic Asylum,” and passing decades would barely soften the name: “Toronto Asylum for the Insane”; “Hospital for the Insane”; “Ontario Hospital.” But no matter what they called it, the address alone, “999 Queen” remained code for “the nut house.”

“Fifth time I came here,” he says, “I wasn’t even thinking about it. Soon it was no different to me than walking through the stadium.” Welcome, then, to the Secret Life of Paul Beeston.

Beeston is known for many things. The native of Welland, Ont., was the very first employee of the Toronto Blue Jays. He was the accountant whiz kid who helped bring two World Series championships to Canada, the Canadian who went on to become president of Major League Baseball.

He is not, however, much known for his work at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Now 63, he is about to retire as its chair. On the bright side, it will mean no more long board meetings on addiction research where he finds himself craving a cold beer, no more discussions about anti-smoking campaigns where all he can do is tap that Monte Cristo cigar that he’d love to break out of his jacket pocket.

“I know, I know,” he laughs. “The irony is not lost.” He never did stop smoking, but Beeston will leave having launched the most ambitious mental-health project in the country: a $1-billion expansion that involves various levels of government, particularly the Province of Ontario, and the University of Toronto. It will turn CAMH into an institution that he believes will make Canada a leading world force in mental-health care.

And it happened almost by accident.

When Beeston returned to Toronto several years ago following his successful stint with Major League Baseball, he thought, with time on his hands, he should volunteer for something. Lawyer Herb Solway, a driving force behind the Blue Jays since the team began in 1977, insisted Beeston give that time to mental health. It didn’t strike Beeston as a particularly good fit – he had never before been involved; he had no family reason to be – but Solway refused to take no for an answer.

“Now,” Beeston says, “I see it as the most exciting thing I’ve ever done in my life – and that’s compared to winning the World Series.” What Beeston brought to the table was legendary people skills. “He reads people probably better than anyone,” says Dr. Paul Garfinkel, the Centre’s CEO. “And remember, this is the world of psychiatry.” Garfinkel recalls his first meeting with Beeston and how he assumed, wrongly, that Beeston would simply be a name to connect to fundraising. “I don’t do that,” Beeston said. “Cecil Fielder doesn’t steal bases.” Garfinkel had later to ask a staff member who Fielder was – a big, lumbering slugger – before he understood what Beeston meant. “Well,” Garfinkel says with a sly smile, “Cecil Fielder must steal bases.” Beeston threw himself into the work to the point where, each Christmas Day, Paul and Kaye Beeston would show up to hand around huge cookies to the staff that had to work. He became as popular and familiar to the Centre’s clients as he ever was to Blue Jay fans. He brought the vast array of interests, not always on the same page, together and he simply made it happen by refusing to accept that it could not.

“In the early days of the Blue Jays,” Beeston says, “we wanted one day to be able to swagger like the New York Yankees do. Well, that’s the same ambition we have here now. To swagger right alongside Great Britain’s Institute of Psychiatry and Columbia University.

“We’re probably where cancer research was in the 1990s – but we believe now we can be one of the leading mental-health institutions in the world.” The key, says Beeston, is “all about reducing stigma.

“When I was in charge of Blue Jays, I can’t tell you how many calls I would get from people with a bad knee asking ‘Can you get me to see an orthopedic surgeon?’ Well, now I actually get more calls from people saying, ‘Can you get me in to see a psychiatrist?’

“Everyone deserves a chance. It’s not about fixing a knee – it’s about fixing a mind. Our message is clear: There is hope.” There did not used to be much around this place. Of the 22,475 people admitted to “999 Queen” up to 1940, 5,718 died on the premises. Women were once given hysterectomies to cure “hysteria.” Men were put to work building more and higher walls.

999 Queen is now a parking lot. It will soon be surrounded by new facilities that, Beeston says, will turn this old address into the country’s “gem” as far as research on addiction and mental health goes.

But it will take time – just as it took the Blue Jays more than a decade to move from expansion dream to World Series contention.

“We were going head to head with the rest of the world – but we did it,” Beeston says. “And we can do that here. We can play with the big boys.”

rmacgregor@globeandmail.com

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