Technical Corner

Tony Brenner – A Mentor to Many

May 2022

Mentor - an experienced and trusted adviser, advise or train someone, especially a younger colleague, a wise and trusted counselor or teacher, an influential senior supporter.

As we celebrate 75-years as a not-for-profit Association, it is important to reflect on our accomplishments and recognize those who played key roles in our success as an industry leading organization. There is no doubt that many volunteers were involved with the growth of the ORFA however, there are a few who without a doubt played significant roles in helping grow the ORFA’s brand long before we knew we were in fact a “brand” – Tony Brenner was one such individual.

It might seem hard to imagine but during the 50th anniversary celebration, the ORFA did not own many of the training courses that now form the foundation of our professional accreditation program. The ORFA hosted the Annual Professional Development Program each spring at the University of Guelph that attracted on average 500 plus practitioners to a week of training and networking. There is no doubt, it was a fun and different time as members purged their winter operational stress in an informal kick-off to the warm weather months. The courses that were being attended were primarily owned by the instructors who delivered the sessions. In the early days, there was not many “examinations” as the information was deigned to be stimulus for personal growth through awareness. There was no pathway to apply the received information as a form of professional accreditation. Members merely displayed their certificates like wallpaper in their offices or they were placed in a drawer to be forgotten.

Enter Tony Brenner, a young practitioner with no formal education and as Tony would openly share, from a family that worked for everything they richly received. Tony began like so many did back in the 1970’s in an entry level position and worked at rising to manage the University of Western Ontario ice arena. This trajectory would be the catalyst to his success as functioning in a post-secondary institutional environment was more business driven as the operation functioned more like a business when compared to the relatively relaxed environment of a municipal setting. Financial forecasting that included asset management, long before it was the focus it is today, were daily expectations in this environment. Post-secondary institutions also embraced the need and benefits of policy and procedures in daily operations as well as understanding risk management as a tool to reduce liability. Today, this all seems so normalized but back then, it all was new to the industry.

Tony could have gone through his entire career and never shared any of what he was exposed to but instead, as both a board member and past president of the Ontario Arenas Association and then board member of the ORFA, he brought these concepts to both the board table and classroom to help shape the organization and the industry we are today. Tony has been retired now for more than 10-years, gone from the spotlight of Association function but for those who knew him, like me, he was an industry leader like no other. Tony’s ability as a public speaker was unmatched. His power to string together words in a manner that made our business and organization sound professional was second to none. His attire and grooming were impeccable – he was one of a few who told the generation that would follow him that we have earned the right to wear a suit and tie and we are just as important as any other department. To be professional, we must look professional. Tony was talking health and safety responsibilities long before it became so mainstream as it is today. His Legal Awareness course shocked many young practitioners (like me) into the reality of responsibility while his Strategic Business course made senior recreation leaders think big picture. 

As ORFA Chair of Professional Development, Tony worked tirelessly to ensure that what we did as industry leaders were reflected in our every effort. He would be recognized as one of the main people in the hunting party that killed the “rink rat” image of our industry and replaced it with a recreational professional. The ORFA continues to build on the “strategic planning” concept that he first delivered many years ago that forced board members to think where we needed to be 5-10 or 25 years later – and they did. Tony also broke other boundaries by forcing board members to consider that volunteerism had its limits and at times to truly grow the Association, we would need to invest to succeed. Tony was the primary architect of the Certified Ice Technician professional designation, the first industry accreditation that was not mandated by regulation. A concept that was proposed as a business venture with long term impact to both the Association and the industry as a whole. A concept that has truly come to fruition.

Tony will be the first to share that he did not do any of this on his own – there were many who assisted however, what must not be lost is the fact that every success requires leadership. It was a different time, life was simpler, and not as crowded with as many technology distractions we know today. There was more space in our lives to volunteer. I can’t say there is not another Tony Brenner somewhere in our industry but to be the next person to raise the highwater mark they will need to be a visionary with drive and commitment to improve or shape the industry.

Tony was okay with mistakes. He made them and learned from them – it’s what our industry is built on. However, most have been made and built into ORFA training programs so the next generation, if interested in learning from them, can avoid them. His “it’s okay to fly with the eagles at night as long as you can be up with the chickens in the morning” as we all learned what “excessive libations” meant rings true today. As we invest in bringing our members back into a professional, interactive, live, social environment this coming fall, enjoy all life has to offer but be ready to answer the bell in the morning.

It has been 15-years since I was the recipient of the Tony Brenner Mentor Award as a member “who embraces the vision of the ORFA, and through professional conduct and service, openly shares and mentors others in the recreation facility industry”. It has been more than 30-years since I first attended Tony’s Legal Awareness class and his teaching still continues to influence my role with the Association today. The opportunity to be the next industry leader (mentor) is open to anyone ready to take up the challenge. Tony Brenner set the bar for others to raise it.

Comments and/or Questions may be directed to Terry Piche, CRFP, CIT and Technical Director, Ontario Recreation Facilities Association

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