Marika Roy has supported McGill initiatives in Engineering and Medicine, and in March 2017, she was recognized by the University at a special event in the Faculty of Engineering launching a new undergraduate program in bioengineering.
It is nearly midnight on December 31, 1956, high in the Hungarian Alps. A slight and nervous 18-year-old girl presses against her mother in the back of a horse-drawn sleigh, racing down a snow-blown road that winds around a steep mountainside. She peers out from under the white blanket someone gave her for camouflage. The Hungarian authorities are looking for them: their yellow flares swoop overhead, lighting up the grey faces of the mountaintops. As the sleigh ploughs on, the wind biting her cheeks, she sees the dark figures of several men up ahead in the road. Her heart freezes: she is certain they’ve been caught. But as the sleigh draws nearer, and the wind drops, the sound of their voices reveals that they are Austrian.
She has made it across the border. She has escaped from Communist Hungary.
This could be a scene from a film, but it happens to be the true story of Marika Zelenka Roy, BEng’61, the alumna who helped launch the Department of Bioengineering by establishing its first endowed Chair with a $1.5 million gift in 2008. Her journey from a young girl in Hungary to her days as one of the first female students to study electrical engineering at McGill is a testament to the fortitude and dedication of those first-generation Canadians who passed through the Faculty of Engineering.
THE HUNGARIAN EDISON
Roy (née Zelenka) was born in Budapest, Hungary. Her father, Laszlo Zelenka, was known as the Hungarian Edison’ because he was always inventing electrical devices (including a way-before-its-time optical pen text-reader for the blind).
He made his name manufacturing electrical signal generators for China. It was in her father’s business that Roy would start a lifelong fascination with electronics, but she was not to pursue that dream in Hungary.
“I clearly remember the day – December 28th, 1949,” says Roy. “I was in my father’s shop when this rather respectable-looking fireman came through the door and said: ‘From today on, by order of the state, I am the boss here. I am going to run this place.’ The State had decided private enterprises were exploiting the people, and so they took away his factory. Nationalization was like that – from one day to the next, you lost everything.”
So Laszlo Zelenka smuggled the young Marika and his wife out of Hungary via train and sleigh, part of a wave of over 200,000 Hungarians who fled during that period of the country’s history. She was never to see her father again: Zelenka died of an illness several years later in Hungary, while his wife and daughter embarked on a new life in Canada.
McGill AND MARRIAGE
The early days in Montreal were a challenge for her and her mother. Roy struggled to brush up on the English she had learned in Budapest, just in time to make her application to McGill’s Faculty of Engineering.
It was no easy thing for a woman back in 1957.
“I couldn’t really afford to go to McGill, but the Board of Directors was giving out 25 Hungarian student scholarships that year,” she remembers. “The only reason I eventually got a bursary is because a certain Mrs. Smith on the board supported my case. The board was against a scholarship application from a woman for Engineering. They said, ‘We should give it to a student who will actually finish the program’.”
The valiant ‘Mrs. Smith’ fought Roy’s case on the basis of her excellent academic merit and managed to change her colleagues’ minds.
If Roy is thankful for her days at McGill Engineering, it is partly for the education it gave her, partly that it helped her to an eventual career at Canadian Marconi Company (CMC), but mostly because it was where she met her husband-to-be, Alain Roy, BEng‘61.
A French Canadian from Trois-Rivières, Roy was also a freshly-minted navy man from the Royal Military College in Kingston. He had come to McGill to study electrical engineering in the fifth and final year to get his university accreditation. Arriving in the same year that Zelenka was finishing her studies, the couple fell in love while at school and married soon after graduation.
ON THE MOVE
Roy would bring his wife Marika on some journeys of his own. Taking a job with IBM after leaving school, the couple relocated to Quebec City (“IBM stands for ‘I’ve Been Moved’,” she jokes). Roy, now a young mother, appreciated the peace and quiet of “la vieille capitale,” away from the big-city bustle of Montreal.
Alain Roy was not at IBM very long before he and a couple of colleagues set up an IT company of their own. Founded in 1972, Ducros, Meilleur, Roy (DMR) would eventually become the largest information systems service provider in Canada, providing the scoring systems for both the Montreal and Moscow Olympics.
Marika Roy eventually left CMC to follow her husband on his business trips visiting DMR branch offices around the world – Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Melbourne and Sydney – wonderful memories she shared with her husband before his untimely death in 1994.
A JOURNEY OF GIVING
After the sale of her husband’s business to Fujitsu, Roy deepened her commitment to her philanthropic activities. She became a supporter of many causes, but first on her list was McGill University. Roy’s generosity goes beyond contributing to the Department of Bioengineering. She has also given to the construction of the Lorne M. Trottier Building (a room there bears her name), and she supported the Montreal General and St. Mary’s hospitals with new equipment.
“I was reading a publication about McGill alumni,” she remembers, “and one of them spoke about how much he felt he owed McGill for what it brought him. And I thought, ‘Why not me?’ McGill did so much for me, where else could I give with this much heart?”