WCH School of Nursing’s first Black Valedictorian
This article was written in collaboration with WCH Archives and Marilyn’s daughter, Allison Kerr
As we celebrate Black History and Futures Month, we bring to light the inspiring stories of those Black Canadians from our history who have made meaningful contributions to our hospital and to our community. This year we celebrate Marilyn Todd, WCH School of Nursing’s first Black Valedictorian, in our first ever photo timeline series – a way to celebrate Marilyn’s life both within and outside of WCH. As a trailblazer, Marilyn paved the way for Black Canadians in the healthcare industry and defiantly overcame adversity to become a successful pioneer in her field. With the help of her family and WCH Archives, we are proud to celebrate Marilyn’s life and achievements.
Marilyn is Born
Marilyn Todd is born to Walter and Mayzie Todd, beginning an inspiring legacy that would make a mark on Women’s College Hospital, those whose lives she touched and many Black healthcare workers who would come after her.
1940 – 1950
Marilyn began her education at Fairbanks Public School before moving to York Memorial High School. From sports to studies, she excelled at everything she endeavored to do, even at an early age.
“Lots of people don’t know that my mom was an Air Cadet, or that she sold ice cream on the Lakeshore during the summer,” muses her daughter Allison. “She really did it all!”
As Marilyn got older, she met her first love – the piano.
1945 – 1954
A Piano Prodigy
As a young girl, Marilyn Todd fell in love with music and, with her family’s encouragement, she trained as a classical pianist.
“Marilyn loved and excelled at playing the piano,” says Allison. “My grandfather would drive her to her piano lessons and would wait the whole time until she was done.”
Marilyn’s training paid off. At the age of twelve, she won the piano solo category at the annual Peel Music Festival and was awarded a T. Eaton Scholarship. A local newspaper noted that her final concert was so crowded, a second concert had to be held to accommodate the large audience. Throughout her teenage years, Todd continued to compete in music competitions and won many prestigious awards while simultaneously holding recitals at the Eaton Auditorium, the CNE, and the Canadian Legion Hall.
Sadly, Marilyn made the difficult decision to leave music due to hardships faced by Black artists. In the 1950s, being a performer meant travelling away from family and friends, and exposure to further racism, bigotry and general lack of acceptance. Despite her immense talent, Marilyn chose to support and care for her family, and so began her career in healthcare.
“Though it’s a shame my mom left music as such an accomplished pianist, she was awesome at everything she put her mind to,” says Allison. “Especially nursing.”
The Leap into Healthcare
After graduating from York Memorial Collegiate, Todd enrolled in the WCH School of Nursing. Classmate and long-time friend, Marilyn Wynn (Moore ’58), remembers that Todd was well-liked and highly respected by all her fellow nursing students. It was no surprise that she was voted Class Valedictorian by the WCH Class of 1958. After graduation, Todd remained at WCH and began her nursing career as a private duty nurse.
“I think my mom chose WCH because it allowed her the opportunity to become an extraordinary healthcare professional and human being – why wouldn’t she start off working there?” shares Allison.
Working at York-Finch Hospital
Marilyn would later be recruited to join the newly built York-Finch Hospital. Throughout her nursing career, she worked in urology, day surgery, medical surgery as a Team Leader, and finally, directed the hospital’s Employee Education program.
“Marilyn’s proudest healthcare achievement was becoming a Charge Nurse and Director of Health Education at York Finch-Hospital,” shares Allison.
With success came adversity. As a Black female, Marilyn experienced harassment and racism in the workplace and quickly realized she had to be the catalyst for the change she wanted to see for Black women in healthcare. After years of campaigning and making her voice heard, Marilyn would eventually experience positive outcomes and set a precedent for the treatment of Black employees within the Canadian healthcare system.
Despite being a Black woman, Marilyn never stood by the conventional limitations of what she was ‘supposed’ to be. “She was the only woman on our street to have her own car and driver’s license,” shares Allison. “She was always a pioneer, just like her mom.”
Marilyn and Motherhood
Through all of her amazing achievements, Marilyn’s greatest might have been the relationships she fostered with her family and children. Marilyn is remembered fondly by her daughter Allison for her “love, generosity and zest for life.” She filled her home with warmth, humour and music, with melodies from her piano echoing through the halls when her family would least expect it.
Even as she lived with dementia, Marilyn’s humour shone bright – once when asked, “How are you feeling?” Marilyn sarcastically quipped, “With my hands.”
Marilyn retired from nursing in 1997. She went on to be an active member of the Ontario Nurses’ Association and held a position on its executive committee. “When looking back, I have to say that I enjoyed my profession along with the experience it has brought me,” Marilyn explained.
2020 – Present
Over the years, Todd continued to maintain friendships with her WCH classmates and always attended the WCH Nursing Alumnae Association’s annual dinners. Sadly, Marilyn passed away in June 2020. She is greatly missed by her classmates, her family and all those who knew and loved her.
“We miss our mother and are proud of her for so many reasons,” says Allison. “Speaking for myself, she was not only my mother but she was my friend and rock. Her love for life, her beautiful smile, and her spirit will live on in all that she touched.”
In honour of Black History and Futures Month, we share and celebrate the achievements of Marilyn (Todd) Kerr, who for over four decades was a caring and compassionate leader in the field of nursing.