EllisDon founder Don Smith – force of nature, builder of buildings and of people, underdog and later a champion of underdogs everywhere, and 65 year partner with the equally formidable Joan Smith – has passed away at 89. There are very many of us who assumed Don would always be there; we are on our own now.
Born in Provost, Alberta in 1924, Don started life prematurely weighing just over three pounds. He was not expected to last nine hours, let alone 90 years. His determined mother Florence Marie (Ellis), along with a passionate neonatal nurse who nicknamed him ‘Buster,’ and Don’s nascent iron will got him through.
Don’s father, Donald Bennett Smith, died suddenly in 1930, forcing Florence to abandon Provost for Toronto just as the Great Depression got under way. His mother’s job at Eaton’s and his now legendary paper route supported the family. Don, older brother David and sister Muriel were soon joined by their cousin and brother-in-arms George Ellis.
reneurs are born, not made. A hand tremor dashed early dreams of aeronautical engineering, but Don’s drive would not be repressed. He joined Foundation Company, made Superintendent at the amazingly young age of 25, moved to London and married Joan McDonald in 1949 – a force in her own right. Don leaves his seven children: Catherine, Robert (Theresa), Lynne (Mike Koenig), Geoffrey (Megan), Michael (Dianne), Donald (Jacqueline) and David (Jennifer) and 21 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. He will be profoundly missed.
Don and brother David started EllisDon on April Fool’s Day, 1951. Their first contract for a small garage, but they expanded very quickly to schools, then to universities, health care and office buildings. They worked nights and week-ends, driving by competitors’ offices late at night to see if anyone was outworking them. Soon, the company had expanded to Nova Scotia and Alberta as EllisDon bid on airports, mining projects and civil works. Today, the company that Don founded completes over $3 billion in volume annually, has worked all over the globe on every type of project, and is nearly 50% owned by its 1600 employees.
Don never wavered from his entrepreneurial core: In 1985 at 61 years old, Don bet the entire company on something that had never before been attempted: A fully guaranteed $400 million retractable roof stadium called SkyDome. An engineering and construction feat and an entrepreneurial risk, it likely knows no equal in Canada, and remains Don’s proudest achievement at EllisDon. And, of course, his second home at Windjammer Landing in St. Lucia. A cherished place that yielded many friendships and hundreds of permanent jobs; ‘Papa Don’ is revered there.
But EllisDon constituted just one facet of Don’s life. He constantly fought bigotry and unfairness. As a young businessman of 4
Don’s other decades long passion was politics at every level, and he was proudest of working with David Peterson to rebuild the Ontario Liberal Party from the bottom up, ending 40 straight years of Conservative rule as the Liberals took power in 1985.2, Don used every means required to force the London Club, the City’s establishment bastion, to admit its first Jewish member, and soon these barriers fell across that city and beyond. Don was later awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Canadian Council Of Christians and Jews for his courageous stand.
After all that, perhaps Don’s greatest impact on others came from his unending commitment to philanthropy. No-one ever wrote a cheque faster than Don. He did not die as wealthy as one might think, having given away millions over the years. And it’s amazing to think that he raised far more money than he earned. Very many people had no idea of their own capability to give until they were subjected to ‘the Don treatment’. (One bank CEO, was startled by Don’s opening appeal on behalf of Fanshawe College: ‘This is a stick up.’ The bank gave several hundred thousand.) The Boys And Girls Club especially, but many other charities and individuals (some of whom will never know) benefitted from Don’s unflagging energy and generosity over his entire life.
A life very well lived. More importantly, one that enabled very many other lives to be well lived.
Visitation will be held at Ivey Spencer Hall (551 Windermere Road, London) on Thursday, July 18th from 1-330 pm and from 7-9 pm. A Celebration of Don’s Life will be held at the London Hunt Club (1431 Oxford St. W. London) on Tuesday, July 23rd, starting at 3 pm. In lieu of flowers, Don would ask you to multiply that cost by at least ten and donate it today to your favourite charity.