Chairman of the board, horseman, lover of pickles, carver of the family roast beef. Born July 6, 1929, in Montreal; died Dec. 14, 2013, in Montreal, of Alzheimer’s disease, aged 84.
When they were young, David Zunenshine’s grandchildren thought he owned the world. It is easy to understand why: There is a photograph of him sharing a laugh with the prime minister of Canada, Pierre Elliot Trudeau; and another photo of him and the Israeli prime minister, Shimon Peres. At the Shabbat dinner table, David would tell stories about doing business with the famous NHL players of the day.
But his life did not start that way. David Zunenshine was born in Montreal in 1929, the second of four brothers. He grew up in the rough and colourful working-class Jewish immigrant neighbourhood around St. Urbain Street, which author Mordecai Richler would later immortalize. As a child, David would often hike up Mount Royal and persuade the RCMP officers to let him clean their horse stables, a sign of his love of horses that would last a lifetime.
As a teenager David worked a series of jobs while helping at his father’s fruit store. In his twenties, he so impressed his employer, the owner of a construction company, that the owner contrived to have David deliver a package to his granddaughter, Hazel Caplan. The resulting marriage would last 60 years and produce three children, eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
In 1955, with a young wife and baby daughter, David decided to start his own construction business and invited his brothers who were of age to join him. Naming their company Belcourt Inc., they quickly became pioneers in suburban development, beginning with the town of Dollard-des-Ormeaux. David named many streets in Dollard after family members, including his wife; his son, Howard; and his father, Hyman.
Over the next 40 years David helped to establish many “firsts,” including Montreal’s first condominium buildings. Along with his brother Michael, he became a leader in the commercial real estate strategy, “If you build it, they will come,” constructing major projects before securing tenants.
Entrepreneurial to the core, David expanded their partnership into many other businesses, most notably negotiating the purchase of CCM, the hockey and sporting goods company, in 1983.
David connected with the world primarily through business and one of his great joys was to help others strike out on their own, providing mentorship and financial investments in their dreams.
To bond with his young grandchildren, he used business as a framework. Calling a meeting under the stairs of his home, he declared: “Kids, from this day forward we are a company. Our company will have standards. To become a full member, you need to be potty trained.” He appointed himself chairman-of-the-board and took the grandchildren on “business trips” to visit his horses at the stables, eat maple syrup at his sugar bush, and see how hockey jerseys are made.
Then, with the onset of Alzheimer’s, everything changed. David lived with the disease for 20 years and although it sometimes made him slip in his manners, on the whole he maintained them and also managed to retain his charm and sense of humour. A proud man, he seemed to try not to ask questions that hinted at his vulnerability. During this time he explored painting and entertained other members of his Alzheimer’s group with singing and storytelling.
As he weakened, the bond that he shared with his wife grew stronger. Hazel cared for him at their home until the end. In a long and successful business career, she was his greatest asset.
Joshua Levy is David’s eldest grandchild.
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