The dulcet sound heard at the annual general meeting of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra was the announcement of a $14.7-million donation from H. Thomas and Mary Beck. It is the largest gift ever made to the organization.
“The Beck family’s long-standing commitment to this city has been exemplified by their unwavering support of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and our mission to serve this community with extraordinary and meaningful musical experiences,” orchestra CEO Mark Williams said in the lobby of Roy Thomson Hall.
The windfall from the Beck family brings their donation total to the TSO to more than $50 million over their extensive history with the orchestra.
Because the TSO celebrated its centennial this past year, the ambitious 2022-23 season was an expensive one. The orchestra’s first tour under the leadership of Spanish conductor and music director Gustavo Gimeno took them to Ottawa’s National Arts Centre, Chicago’s Symphony Center and, for the first time since 2011, New York’s Carnegie Hall.
About $1.8-million of the $14.7-million donation was used to offset costs, resulting in a surplus of approximately $30,000. The remaining $12.9 million was transferred to the Toronto Symphony Foundation to be invested.
The Beck family’s relationship with the orchestra dates back to the 1950s, when newlyweds Tom and Mary Beck began attending TSO concerts. They eventually became subscribers and donors.
The couple had met in Toronto shortly after immigrating from Europe. In 1963, the Becks started a business that would become Noma Industries Ltd., one of North America’s leading manufacturers of electrical equipment and an iconic brand of Christmas lights.
Their three children carry on the tradition of supporting the orchestra. Catherine Beck has chaired the TSO board of directors since 2016. In recognition of the family’s generosity, two new endowments have been established to support the TSO: the Cathy and Liddy Beck Principal Oboe Chair and the Beck Family Chief Executive Officer.
The 100th-anniversary season began with an open house and free concert at Roy Thomson Hall and concluded with an outdoor show at Harbourfront Centre on Canada Day. In between, the TSO returned to its ancestral building for a sold-out concert at Massey Hall, where Tom and Mary Beck first attended the orchestra’s performances more than 60 years ago.
Tom Beck was born into a Jewish family in 1926 in a small town in Hungary, where he lived until the age of 13. Uprooted by the advent of World War II, he and his mother, Theresa, made their way to England in 1939.
In London, Tom had an early lesson in the value of philanthropy: an anonymous donor sponsored his high school tuition. He became a top all-around athlete, and was a great student, particularly in physics and math. He went on to university and received a degree in high voltage engineering.
Meanwhile, his mother moved to Toronto to join her brother, and Tom followed suit in 1950. It was there that he met Mary—also Hungarian, from Pest, who had survived the war in a convent. Mary had immigrated to Canada in 1952, and they met a year later. “Dad was smitten by her, and his love never wavered for the next 60 years,” says Liddy.
“They were so devoted to each other.”
Tom and his mother took out a $2,000 line of credit (which they never used) and bought a small business manufacturing electric cords.
The Becks found a way to manufacture high-quality, aesthetic products at low cost. In 1963, they bought Noma Lites (Canada) and made their foray into the Christmas market.
Later renamed Noma Industries Limited, it quickly became one of the largest producers of Christmas tree lights in North America.
Tom and Mary worked tirelessly to build their electric light and component business.
Mary put her touch on every aspect of the business, paying attention to small details and aesthetics.
They also involved their children in their work—Cathy and Liddy recall driving around the city for hours with their father in the cold of December to check out the Christmas lights.
In their business as at home, the Becks “had a clear sense of right and wrong, and they were ambitious, tough, but fair,” says Cathy. “Just as they set high bars in their work, they also had high expectations for us, wanting us first and foremost to be independent but also giving to others.”
Cathy went to work for the company at age 22, eventually serving as chief executive (and later selling the company). Starting in her early 50s, she carved out half her week for philanthropic endeavors—a decision, she says, that mirrored her parents’ own paired commitment to earning and giving. Her first success story was keeping alive a local music school for underprivileged kids that was on the brink of closure, through a fundraising drive and strategic overhaul.
“Our parents talked a lot about the importance of philanthropy,” recalls Cathy. “They always gave—if you had a roof over your head and food on your plate you could afford to give. Philanthropy was second nature to us. Even when we got summer jobs as teenagers, Dad would ask, ‘How much of your paycheck are you giving to charity?’”
Tom and Mary Beck gave generously to dozens of organizations, but their biggest beneficiaries were the Weizmann Institute and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
Tom Beck was an avid supporter of our Lifestyles Magazine/Meaningful Influence from the publication’s inception.