Vancouver businessman and philanthropist Joseph Segal never forgot the lessons of war

Joseph Segal, business titan and philanthropist, during the 2017 Giving Hearts Outstanding Philanthropist Awards Ceremony.Greg Ehlers/Courtesy of the Family

For Joseph Segal, life was like traveling along the asphalt of a track – sometimes the ride was difficult, but it always had a purpose. A high school dropout turned soldier, business titan and philanthropist, Segal didn’t like the idea of ​​reaching cruising altitude because it would mean relaxing into the status quo, with no more room for improvement.

“He believed that you have a beginning on the runway and an end. And you have to tell yourself that what you do with your time is meaningful,” said his longtime friend Peter Legge, who met Segal when he was an advertising salesman for a Vancouver radio station.

“I was told to do my homework or he would eat me alive,” Legge continued. “We got along well, although I didn’t make the sale. Over 50 years, over many breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, he never spent a dime on advertising with me. All I wanted was friendship and wisdom from him.”

Mr. Segal during WWII while in the Canadian Army.Courtesy of the family

Retirement was not a word in Mr. Segal, a recipient of the Order of Canada and the Order of British Columbia. There were always lots of projects to oversee, people to meet, and charities to donate. True to form, despite being bedridden with a fever, he worked until the day before he died in the early hours of May 31 at his home in Vancouver. He was 97 years old, an indomitable survivor of war, cancer, a stroke and a broken neck who still believed he could live past 100, and everyone around him believed it too.

“We always said Dad had nine lives, like a cat,” said one of his two sons, Gary.

Segal, who went by the old man “Joe”, didn’t worry too much about his past, including growing up poor in Alberta, or his military service during World War II – when he was part of the Calgary Highlander division that helped liberate the Netherlands.

Only at the age of eighty did he begin to recall what he had experienced in the trenches of war, which included the loss of comrades in arms and being caught in the crossfire between Allied and German troops, trying to run across a rutted field towards a farmhouse. that had been taken over by the Wehrmacht. He was surrounded by a barbed wire fence, and when he ducked under the fence, his helmet got stuck.

“I could feel the bullet getting so close it burned. That was the only time I ever said, ‘God, get me out of here,’” Segal recalled in a video interview to mark the opening of the Juno Beach Center, a museum in Normandy, France, that highlights Canada’s role in the war.

“When you’re 18, you don’t know much, [but] one thing I learned from my wartime experience was the importance of unity.”

He would remember this lesson time and time again, starting an army surplus business that grew into a department store empire, then switched to real estate development. A straight-talking billionaire, he has always supported people in the best way he knew how, whether he was giving away new pairs of shoes to homeless people, or donating, with his wife, Rosalie, $12 million to create a new mental system. . Vancouver General Hospital health pavilion.

“Can you imagine being alone and with no one to turn to? Loneliness is the hardest thing in the world,” he once told the Vancouver Sun. “Twenty-five percent of the population walking the streets around the world has a mental health problem of one kind or another. There is a stigma. When you have cancer or a heart condition, there is a lot of support. When you have mental health issues, you walk alone.”

The wedding photo of Joe, 21, and Rosalie, 17, were married on June 16, 1948.Courtesy of the family

Mr. Segal was born on January 12, 1925, in Vegreville, a small town about 100 kilometers east of Edmonton, the third of four children born to Samuel and Sophie Segal. His parents had emigrated from Russia via Palestine. His father was a shopkeeper and jack of all trades who became a painter before he died prematurely of a heart attack. His mother, tough and down to earth, was left to raise her children alone.

At the time, young Joe was in 10th grade, a teenager who loved to read but dropped out of school to help support his family. His first employer was a shopkeeper, who made him sweep the floor. So he sold frozen white fish door to door. Finally, he left Vegreville to work on the construction of the Alaska Highway, a job that saw him live in a camp in the bush, with little to do but play a little poker at night and send good money back home.

At age 18, while visiting Calgary and earning about $3,000, he met a taxi driver who convinced him to play a game of poker. Hours later, it was broken. When he called his mother to say he couldn’t even pay for the hotel, she refused.

“You made your bed, now lie in it,” she said.

When his older sister arrived to save him, he looked for his next job. After an unsuccessful attempt to join the navy – he found it would take 30 days to process his documents – he enlisted in the army, undergoing basic training in Canada before embarking, first to England, then to Holland, and then to the United States. last year of the war, Germany.

Upon returning to Canada at age 21, he went to Vancouver to visit relatives and met the teenager who would become his wife as she got off a ferry from Vancouver Island. He was in love with Rosalie Wosk from the start, undeterred by his parents’ opposition to him courting their daughter because they feared that despite his ambition and bravery, he would come to nothing. Eventually, inexorably, the young couple overcame their parents’ fears and married in 1948, the beginning of a partnership that would last nearly 74 years.

Segal soon set about proving his in-laws’ fears wrong by taking advantage of the army surplus business he started with cans of olive paint and swinging fans at a discount department store he called Fields. So he took over the now-defunct retail chain Zellers (one of his more heartless ventures because he was embroiled in a bidding war with a much richer US-based multinational corporation), turning it from a shipwrecked loser, unsure of his market into a thriving business worth over $800 million. His son said he achieved this feat by taking the “Saran wrap” off the chain to let her breathe.

Mr. Segal at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto in 2007.Philip Cheung/The Globe and Mail

In 1979, he sold Zellers to Hudson’s Bay Company, where he became a majority shareholder and director. That same year, he founded Kingswood Capital Corporation, a property and venture capital firm with offices in the Pacific Center tower in the heart of downtown Vancouver. Every day, at lunchtime, he took the elevator down to a restaurant at the now-closed Four Seasons Hotel, where he welcomed guests ranging from business and religious leaders to academics, journalists, and those who simply needed someone to listen. .

“These were the lessons I learned from him: be honest and have integrity, do what you say you are going to do, listen as much as you can, and always follow through,” said Legge, who wrote a book published in 2013 called Lunch with John, a compilation of interviews with over 90 of your friend’s lunch mates. “Of course, and always give the best answer you can.”

The community work of Mr. Segal was legendary and diverse, with contributions to BC Children’s Hospital, the Variety Club, the United Way, Children’s Charity, and the Vancouver Police Foundation, among others. He served six years as the dean of Simon Fraser University and helped countless people with small and large loans that were not always repaid.

In 1992, he received the Order of British Columbia. Two years later, he was appointed to the Order of Canada, and he was also given his own coat of arms, the motto of which was Strength and Decision with Compassion. And in 1998, author Peter. C. Newman, writing about BC business leaders in Titans: How the New Canadian Establishment Seized Powerwrote, “If the local titans held a popularity contest, Joe Segal would win without a doubt.”

At his funeral, the Vancouver Police Department provided an honor guard to escort his coffin to his grave, a final tribute to a man who never forgot where he came from, gave back to the community and had the people’s best interests at heart.

He leaves his wife, Rosalie; sons, Lorne and Gary Segal; daughters, Sandra Miller and Tracey Schonfeld; 10 grandchildren; and 18 great-grandchildren.

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