Donald J. ("Bus") Smith O.C.

Geoff Smith Portrait

BY Geoff Smith


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 with a fight for his life: Delivered prematurely at just over three pounds, he was not expected to last nine hours, let alone 90 years. But his very determined mother Florence Marie (Ellis), a passionate nurse who nicknamed him ‘Buster', and Don's nascent iron will got him through. There was more to come: father Donald Bennett Smith died suddenly in 1930, forcing the newly impoverished Florence to abandon Provost for Toronto just as the Great Depression got under way. A Sales Clerk position at Eaton's sustained the family; Don, older brother David and sister Muriel were soon joined by brother-in-arms George Ellis and the odyssey began.

Pure entrepreneurs are born, not made: Given a toy movie projector at 10, Don cleaned out the basement and invited the neighbourhood kids over for Charlie Chaplin movies - at five cents a head. And while a hand tremor dashed early dreams of aeronautical engineering, 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, Joan received a UofT Philosophy degree, got married and had her first child, Catherine, all within twelve months of turning twenty-one and soon began her own career in public and charitable service and then municipal and provincial politics. Two careers didn't mean there couldn't be a large family as well: After Catherine came six more: Robert (Theresa), Lynne (Mike Koenig), Geoffrey (Megan), Michael (Dianne), Donald (Jacqueline) and David (Jennifer) as well as, for several years, foster child Mike Fortner. Eventually this clan would grow to include 21 grand-children – all of whom got to go on a trip with their grandparents to any place they chose - and four great grand children.

Don and brother David started EllisDon on April Fool's Day, 1951, with no money, their mother as bookkeeper and backer, and a tiny home renovation job, but the pace of growth they achieved was remarkable. They graduated immediately to schools, then to universities and – still in the initial years - to 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. As 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, perhaps not Don's greatest financial success, but a great life experience that yielded many friendships and very many 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 42, 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, and tears flowed throughout the hall that evening.

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 (Don worked out of the Liberal Headquarters as SkyDome was being built), and ending 40 straight years of Conservative rule as the Liberals took power in 1985. Perhaps today's dynamic political scene in that province can be attributed, at least in part, to this ‘up-ending' of the status quo.

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. But he raised far more. 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.

Don's family would be happy to meet anyone who would like to come by 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 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.

A life very well lived. More importantly, one that enabled very many other lives to be well lived.