Gordon Sheppard

Writer, Photographer, Filmmaker

Sheppard House

Remarks by Gordon Sheppard at The Toronto French School concerning the dedication of Sheppard House December 1 2004.

I’m going to speak to you tonight about my father, who would be a hundred years old on December 12th. But before doing so, I wanted to tell you that to evoke my father’s presence with us this evening I decided to wear one of his ties…

Bonsoir. Et merci beaucoup de l’invitation à moi-même et ma famille d’assister à l’inauguration de cette structure rénovée qui dorénavent portera le nom de Sheppard House.

You may well wonder why, when we sold our house to The Toronto French School in 1994, I insisted that there be a clause in the deed of sale stipulating that you name the building Sheppard House and affix a plaque to that effect.

When my father died on October 3 1979, I spoke about him at his funeral, in a eulogy which I wrote in the house the night before. This is how I began my remarks:

Who was this man, Harry Sheppard, born in Toronto almost 75 years ago, at the beginning of winter, and who died this week, at Thanksgiving?

The business associate says: “He was tough but fair. He might take you apart, but he always put you back together again before you left his office.”

The civic leader says: “I never knew a man more public-spirited, more involved in the community”.

The farmer says: “He’d always tell you straight out if there was something bothering him, and then he’d listen to what you had to say”.

The nurse says: “When I first met him, I said to myself, “Now there’s a man”.

The boyhood friend says: “I doubt if Harry ever sinned like the rest of us. If he had any sins, they were well-hidden”.

The brother says: “A nicer guy never was”.

The wife says: “There was no one like Dad; he was always such a gentleman”.

Outside the world of business, my father wasn’t famous. No blaring headlines for him, no paparazzi in the driveway — he didn’t do anything that outrageous or spectacular. But in his time Harry Sheppard was an important and esteemed businessman in Canada, one of those leaders who helped the country prosper in the last century, which in turn helped make a school like yours fiscally possible: President of IBM Canada, President of the Toronto Board of Trade, President of the Canadian Manufacturers Association, and director of many companies, including the Imperial Life Insurance Company, the Canadian Surety Company and the Bank of Montreal. In business, he was especially revered, not just for his acumen but for his integrity, and his determination to treat all the people he met or had dealings with — from doormen to captains of industry — with equal respect. In so doing he was trying to live up to the Golden Rule which meant so much to him. Neither cynical nor vain nor pompous, he was dedicated to doing an excellent job — and honouring his fellow beings in the process.

As well, he was a firm believer in contributing to society. For him, this meant helping the less fortunate, and giving time and money to institutions and organizations concerned with the health, welfare and culture of everyone. Hence, among other responsibilities, he was on the boards of Victoria College, the Toronto Symphony Ochestra, the Salvation Army and the CNE, and was Chairman of and chief fund-raiser for, the late Toronto Orthopaedic and Arthritic Hospital.

Besides all this, he was an attentive husband and a loving father, who gave me enduring lessons in caring, generosity and affection.

That he had all these qualities was the more remarkable because of his humble beginnings. Indeed though he had to leave school at fourteen to support his family, by force of character and intelligence he soon made his mark in the world of commerce, so that by the time of the Second World War, when he was in his mid-thirties, he was asked to come to Ottawa to head up the organization and personnel section of the Department of Munitions and Supply. And then, when the war came to an end, IBM named him president of IBM Canada, at the age of forty-one.

Shortly after that my father took up riding, an activity that had fascinated him from the summers of his boyhood when he worked on his Uncle Will Carson’s farm, which covered much of what became known as Hogg’s Hollow. Eventually, after he got comfortable on a horse, my father joined the Toronto and North York Hunt Club, where he became friends with the Master of Foxhounds, Major Clifford Sifton, son of Sir Clifford Sifton, Minister of the Interior and Immigration in the government of Sir Wilfred Laurier. Major Sifton, who had grown wealthy through his holdings in radio stations and newspapers, lived in the mansion that is now one of the main buildings of The Toronto French School. Wanting my father to become his neighbour, in 1954 Clifford Sifton offered to sell him the piece of land on the west edge of the Sifton property — at a friend’s price: as I recall my father paid $15,000 for the land.

And then my father and mother went about planning their dream house — quite an adventure for someone like my father, who grew up in a modest frame dwelling on Brock Avenue in the working class west end of the city, which is all his father, who was a cutter for the Laidlaw Lumber Company, could afford.

At first, partly at my urging, my parents wanted to try for an unusual design, but the first architect they hired proved too much for their conservative tastes — they didn’t go for far-out aesthetics and weren’t prepared to try and build the Toronto equivalent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. At which point, they turned to Clare G. Maclean, the architect who had designed the IBM factory and head office building that my father had recently built on Don Mills Road — the first company to locate there, by the way. For my parents, MacLean designed a serviceable ranch house which gave them great pleasure from the time it was built in 1955-56 until my father entered hospital in 1975 and until my mother died in 1992.

As so often happens, the house was designed for a family of four — two adults and two children — just when the children were about to leave home. Not long after we moved into the house, my sister got married; and I went off to Oxford, where I spent the next three years studying history. Nevertheless, I did live in the house for some months, before and after Oxford, and thus got to enjoy the surprising relationship with nature the house made possible — the soaring, sorrowing colours of autumn, winter’s truculent spareness that allowed you to see far down the valley, the wet frenzy of spring, and the opulent green and dense disquiet of the summer forest. If only for this uncommon closeness with nature in the midst of the city, I soon realized, as did my parents, that to live here was a great privilege.

Unfortunately, my father’s contented life in his new house was blighted in 1962, when he was crudely and abruptly fired as President of IBM Canada by Dick Watson, the younger son of the founder of IBM, Thomas Watson. Dick Watson, who gained notoriety in later years when he drunkenly assaulted a stewardess on his way home from his posting as U.S. Ambassador to France, had always been jealous of my father’s close relationship with his late father. Corporate politics can be brutal and byzantine. Kicked upstairs, as the cliche has it, my father became Chairman of the Board, consigned to an office in the old IBM building on King Street where he had little to do and few people to see. And yet he never complained, and, though the company had been disloyal to him, he always maintained his loyalty to the company. But he was itching to do something useful, to contribute to society, so he was gratified in 1963 when the then Ontario Premier John Robarts asked him to become head of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. But there was a hitch. In those days IBM was known as a very puritan company which frowned on drinking. Hence my father was concerned that because of his long association with IBM, people might find it unseemly for him to become Ontario’s liquor commissioner. So he went to see Andy Lawson, the minister of his church, Timothy Eaton Memorial, to ask his advice. The Reverend Lawson argued that it was quite appropriate, indeed desirable, that a light drinker like my father, who was associated with a company that rejected liquor as a business aid, become head of the Liquor Board. So my father took the job.

But around this time there arose another, more serious, complication: my father began showing the first signs of Parkinson’s disease — which I’ve always felt was triggered by his firing, as my father had been so devastated by what had happened to him. Yet he continued to work hard and successfully as Liquor Commssioner for another seven years — until Parkinsons got the better of him and he had to spend the last four years of his life growing gaunt and feeble and childlike in the hospital that he had helped to build — until he was finally felled one afternoon by a heart attack.

I wanted the building at 294 Lawrence Avenue to bear my father’s name for a number of reasons. First of all, my father’s family has long been associated with Toronto; not famously — except for Sheppard Avenue — but in a quiet, God-fearing, hard-working way, like most of the immigrants from England and Scotland and Ireland who first settled this part of Canada. My father’s Prostestant mother, who was born in 1864, came from a thatched cottage in Armagh in Northern Ireland, and his father, George Henry Sheppard, who was born in 1861 on a farm in Don Mills, was the son of a man who had immigrated here from Long Island New York, where his father had settled after emigrating from Yorkshire, England early in the nineteenth century.

I also wanted the house to bear my father’s name as a testament to the life of an unusually good man, whose hard work and integrity and gift for friendship allowed him to build his dream house. In an age where important businessmen — especially the honest ones — are likely to be forgotten not long after their passing, I wanted the house to be a reminder not only of my father but of the values he epitomized.

But it’s also fitting that the house be named after my father for another, very pertinent, reason: his respect for French-Canadians and his belief that Canada could only realize its full potential if French-Canadians were integrated into the English-Canadian psyche — which for him meant English-Canadians learning French and caring about French-Canadian history and culture. Though he himself was not bilingual, in the speeches he gave to national audiences he always included a passage in French — which he practised over and over so his accent would be acceptable. Not for him the usual excuses about his accent because he wasn’t fluent in French — he thought that was a mark of disrepect. In that same spirit, he urged me to learn French, and through his friendship with Rene Saint-Laurent, the son of the former prime minister of Canada, he made it possible for me to spend the summer of 1957 with a French-Canadian family in Quebec City, which is where I learned to speak French and to appreciate French-Canadian culture. My association with French-Canada has been the central fact of my professional and personal life ever since.

So when we decided to sell the house in 1994, despite the contretemps that my mother had had with the school over errant basketballs and other passing matters, and despite the entreaties of a developer who coveted the property, it made sense to me that we sell to our most immediate neighbour, The Toronto French School.

The last event in the house associated with my father was the reception held there on October 5 1979 after his interment in the cemetery at St. John’s Church in York Mills where his mother, father, sister and brother are buried — on a hill overlooking Hogg’s Hollow. The reception marked the last occasion that the house was full of his friends. I recall that rainy day and the ending of my eulogy:

The light has gone from his surprising eyes and he is silent. He has gone beyond, and all of us, for our different reasons, know our loss, not only of his fellowship, but also of ourselves, for with him into the silence of death he has carried a part of us — what he knew of each of us, what we were to him. Now, celebrating his life in death, we say goodbye to this good man, this righteous man, this noble man, this gentleman.

I’m moved this evening to be able to revisit the house built by this talented gentle man and to tell you about him. I’m sure he would be very glad to know that the house he loved is now part of an institution dedicated to educating students in French and thereby helping to foster among young Torontonians an empathy with French-Canada. That your students do so in a house built by a man of scant education but uncommon integrity and vision who was admired by all who knew him will, I trust, be an inspiration to your students and staff for years to come.

Longue vie à la maison Sheppard. Qu’elle porte honneur à tous ceux qui s’y trouvent pour apprendre.