The 1990s were not a good decade for Toronto, beginning with a deep recession, premier Mike Harris's "common sense revolution," the downloading of many social services from the province to municipalities, the amalgamation of the inner city and its satellite communities, and the election of former North York mayor Mel Lastman as mayor of the "megacity." It was a time when Toronto was beginning to doubt its self-proclaimed status as the centre of the Canadian universe.
After years of Toronto eclipsing Montreal, the reverse seemed possible. In 2002, newly elected Montreal mayor Gerard Tremblay held a city summit that so impressed Mr. Lastman that he was determined to hold one as well. Mr. Pecaut arrived like Cinderella at the ball to give the closing address at the first Toronto City Summit from the perspective of an outsider, who was regularly commuting to New York on business.
"It just blew me away," said Ratna Omidvar, president of the Maytree Foundation, who came to see Mr. Pecaut as a remarkable combination of "action, wisdom and empathy - Luke Skywalker, Obi Wan Kenobi and Atticus Finch all rolled into one. He gave us a sense that we were a city in decline, but that it was possible to pull out of that decline and bring us back to a place of civic dignity and prosperity." At the end of the day, he offered himself as chair of the Toronto City Summit Alliance, a position he held for the rest of his life, and which spawned a cornucopia of civic, regional and provincial projects.
His genius lay in putting an operational framework around ideas "that other people had been working on for some time, but couldn't figure out how to get done," says Alan Broadbent, chair of Maytree. For example, Mr. Pecaut brought key business leaders to the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council, such as Dominic D'Alessandro, then president and CEO of Manulife Financial, who chaired TRIEC for its first six years, and Gordon Nixon, president and CEO of the Royal Bank of Canada, who became chair in September.
"Having that top level leadership in place," said Mr. Broadbent, "as people prepared to work on their own human resources practices" and willing to sit at the table "with their sleeves rolled up and shoulder to shoulder with other people, was a real achievement."
Cancer was one of the very few problems that Mr. Pecaut couldn't round-table into submission. Long after most people would have give up, he was seeking experimental treatment, funding research studies and undergoing brutal chemotherapy protocols. When his colleagues at BCG asked what they could do, he said: "Give me a case team and help me sort through the leading-edge cancer therapies." In the same way he had tackled a marketing problem or an income strategy he worked with a project team, mapping his genomic structure, identifying mutations and seeking out drugs targeted to his tumour cells. Inevitably, the project went beyond one man's relentless search for a cure: It helped create an experimental template for oncologists treating other patients.
At Thanksgiving, he made a heroic appearance as one of two fathers of the bride at his stepdaughter Lauren's wedding in California. Friends and family were astonished by his stamina. He returned home spent, but he kept on working, dictating his memoirs, filming videos and struggling to ensure that his legacy of civic entrepreneurship would prevail.
"I am very much at peace with death," he told The Globe, his breathing assisted by oxygen, his voice raspy, but still waving the flag in his favourite black Luminato T-shirt with its slogan about seeing the world in a new way. "I have received more love from this family in the last 20 years than most men would get in a hundred. I feel in the time I have had that I have been lucky enough to do so much that it feels like a rich and full life."
David Pecaut was born in Sioux City, Iowa on Sept. 14, 1955. He died of cancer at home in Toronto on Dec. 14, 2009 at 54. He leaves his wife Helen, four daughters and his extended family.