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"ETH" 2004 Obituary


ETHERINGTON 2004-12-29 published
A creative force makes final exit
By Jonathan SHER, Free Free Reporter
Earl ORSER, who reshaped Eatons and London Life and led countless community causes in London, has died. The 76-year-old Londoner died Sunday in his north London home, secure in his legacy and comforted by his faith, his family said.
Told this month his cancer was terminal and he had weeks to live, ORSER, a man who made a life of making change despite obstacles, accepted his fate, his daughter Barbara ORSER said yesterday.
"Let me get this straight," he told his doctor. "It's a no-fix."
ORSER's death will be felt across Canada, said John KIME, president of the London Economic Development Corp., an organization on which ORSER served as the founding chair.
"This is truly a national business leader that we have lost," KIME said yesterday.
Born in 1928 in Toronto, ORSER grew up in the Danforth, a working-class neighbourhood. The encouragement of a high school teacher led ORSER to apply for and get a scholarship to the University of Toronto, an act of kindness he was to repeat many times over for countless others.
"That genuinely stayed with him the rest of his life," Barbara ORSER said.
His humble beginnings may go a long way to explain the way ORSER treated those who worked for him, seeking out their opinions and taking a real interest in their lives.
"Anybody that was around him had an opinion that was worthy of expression," KIME said.
ORSER's leadership skills were honed as a university student when he led a work crew of surveyors through remote areas of New Brunswick.
"I can't think of a better way to cut your teeth," Barbara ORSER said.
ORSER became a chartered accountant in 1953 and then a partner in the firm Clarkson Gordon before he began his rise in corporate Canada.
He played leading roles at Molson, Air Canada and Eatons, where as chief executive officer he made a difficult decision, ending the retailer's catalogue business.
That decision was one of the few times he was unprepared for a question, said Jim ETHERINGTON, whose tenure at London Life began with ORSER.
"How could you do it?" the late Barbara FRUM of Canadian Broadcasting Corporation asked, ETHERINGTON recalled.
It wasn't ORSER's only brush with controversy.
In 1978, he was hired by Brascan, an asset management company, to do a study of London Life, which he was then asked to implement.
The insurance company, long run by the Jeffery family, was resistant to change by an outsider, but under ORSER the company went public and assets grew to more than $16 billion from $3.9 billion.
Blake FEWSTER, former chief actuary at London Life, said of ORSER, "He was the most creative person I ever worked for. He modernized the management system and had a great sense of how things should be done."
His acceptance there no doubt had something to do with the way he treated employees, family and colleagues say.
Each year as the holidays approached, he took two or three days to personally wish each employee a merry Christmas, Barbara ORSER said.
His eagerness to take on challenges extended to his community, even to his province, as in 1990, when the Ontario government sought his help.
Bob RAE's New Democratic Party government asked him to write a report on how to improve health care in the London region, and a year later he recommended consolidating the city's hospitals.
His advocacy met with great resistance then, but later became a model for consolidation by successive governments at Queen's Park.
Marion BOYD was an New Democratic Party cabinet minister and in many ways on the opposite end of the political spectrum from ORSER, yet she respected his work.
"He was certainly well thought of as a person of integrity and as someone who really cared about issues affecting his community and the world," BOYD said.
Years later, ORSER butted heads with London city council when, as chairperson of the fledgling London Economic Development Corp., he argued against what he and his staff viewed as unjustified meddling.
His efforts may have saved the London Economic Development Corp. from an early end, KIME said.
"I don't think there's any doubt his status gave us the breathing room we needed."
ORSER was to perform some of his most meaningful work behind the scenes, his daughter Barbara said.
He mentored countless people, from contemporaries of his daughters when they were still in high school to mature professionals.
"He could see someone's potential before they saw it themselves," she said.
When a high school guidance counsellor questioned him about the lack of women entering engineering, he set up a scholarship through John Paul II high school in London.
While he rose to the halls of power, he was rooted to lifelong Friends and common-sense ideas he'd instil in his children and grandchildren.
Each year, he took his family back to east Toronto to attend Palm Sunday services at Kimburne Park United Church, taking time to rub the pews of his childhood.
When he accepted an honorary doctorate from Western, he offered this advice: "Hug your mom, don't get stuck in a rut and put something back in the cookie jar."
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. January 8 at First-St. Andrew's United Church at 350 Queens Ave. in London. Family will receive Friends one hour before the service.
The family has asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the London Regional Cancer Centre or University College Morrison Hall at the University of Toronto.
Earl ORSER Remembered
"Earl is the kind of person who has made Western a great university and we all owe an enormous debt to him."
Paul DAVENPORT, president, University of Western Ontario
"This was a man genuinely committed to London, its success and its growth. He took a very strong leadership role and was insistent on certain principles. He did that with a great deal of skill and diplomacy in a difficult political environment."
John KIME, president, London Economic Development Corp.
"His influence was big in the business community. I knew him through his work at the (London Economic Development Corp.), where he was the chair of the first board. He brought a common-sense approach and rallied the community. We're all saddened by his passing."
Mayor Anne Marie DECICCO
"He did a wonderful job at London Life.... He exhibited some great leadership. He had a great sense of humour but he was resolute and tough. He didn't play golf too well but he was a great people person."
Peter WIDDRINGTON, former chief executive of John Labatt Ltd.
Earl ORSER's Life And Work
1928 Born July 5 in Toronto.
1950 Graduated from the University of Toronto. Joined Clarkson Gordon, becoming a chartered accountant in 1953 and later a partner.
1961 Joined Anthes Imperial, becoming a vice-president, before the conglomerate was bought by Molson Industries.
1968 Became a senior vice-president and director at Molson.
1970 Joined Air Canada as vice-president, finance.
1973 Joined the T. Eaton Co. Ltd., becoming president and Chief Executive Officer.
1978 Hired as a consultant by Brascan, an asset management company, to do a study of London Life, which he was then asked to implement.
1980 Named president and Chief Executive Officer at London Life.
1989 Selected chairperson of the London Life Board.
1991 Wrote a study for Bob RAE's New Democratic Party government advocating consolidation of London hospitals. Named a fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ontario. Given distinguished business alumni award by the University of Toronto.
1992 Given Canada 125 medal for business leadership.
1994 Stepped down as chairperson of London Life but continued on other corporate boards such as Toronto-based Spar Aerospace.
1997 Named to the Order of Canada. Inducted in the London Business Hall of Fame. Founding chairperson of the London Economic Development Corp.
2001 Announced he would retire from the London Economic Development Corp. board.
Notable achievements:
- Served eight years on the board of governors at University of Western Ontario, chairing it from 1988-89.
- Advisory committees to University of Western Ontario's Richard Ivey School of Business and Orchestra London.
- Served on the boards of the Robarts Research Institute, the Young Men's Christian Association, Canada Trust, Royal Trust and Brascan Ltd.
- Chaired the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews.

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