Why this U of T Varsity Blues flag is flying over a Florida high school

Kelly and her dad John Ruttle
U of T alumna Kelly Johnson and her father, alumnus John Ruttle McLeod posing with a Varsity Blues flag (photo courtesy of Kelly Johnson)

University of Toronto pride occasionally pops up in unusual places. That’s definitely the case for the U of T Varsity Blues flag flying proudly over Father Lopez Catholic High School in Daytona Beach, Florida.

How did it get there? It took a third-generation U of T alumna, a cheque for $1,000 – and a spontaneous burst of inspiration.

Kelly Johnson graduated from U of T's Faculty of Nursing in 1989. Her grandfather, John George McLeod, and her father, John Ruttle McLeod, are also alumni.

In the ‘90s, she married an American and moved to Florida. Then a few weeks ago, Johnson was attending a fundraising event for the high school that her daughter Kathleen and son Michael will be attending when an auction item caught her eye.

Attendees could bid to have their alma mater’s flag hoisted onto the school’s flag pole.

A fierce bidding war began. It was a group of alumni from Florida State versus a group from University of Florida, and the bids had reached $800.

Egged on by her friend, Johnson decided to make her move.

“I just stuck my hand up, and I said, ‘$1,000, University of Toronto!’ And the room went quiet,” she says.

Even the auctioneer was dumbstruck – forcing Johnson to repeat the name of the university multiple times.

“Nobody bid against us after that,” says Johnson. “I'm super happy we won.”

The only U of T flag Johnson actually owned was a tiny felt pennant. But with the help of some friendly staff at U of T, a Varsity Blues flag worthy of a flag pole was delivered in record time.

“That’s one of the things that I love about Canada,” says Johnson. “Canadians get excited about stuff.” 

The flag was happily received by the high school, says Johnson.

“A teacher said to me, ‘I'm just glad the kids are going to be exposed to this, to know that there are places other than within the U.S. to go to school,’” she says.  

At a time when the U.S. is incredibly divided, the flag is an opportunity to start a conversation, says Johnson.

“I think things that open people's minds and bring people together can be helpful in establishing a dialogue, and bringing about positive changes and not building divisions between people,” she says.

Johnson hopes when the time comes to apply, her children will consider going to a Canadian university so they can have the same memorable experience that she did.

“I just loved walking between classes on that campus. I loved the environment, the location. I learned to scuba dive in the Hart House pool,” says Johnson. “I have such fond memories of the school.” 

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