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John MacNaughton died in Toronto, of cancer. He was 68.
John MacNaughton died in Toronto, of cancer. He was 68.

Lives Lived: John Alan MacNaughton, 68 Add to ...

Husband, father and grandfather, brother, friend, Bay Street success story, unabashed Canadian. Born March 6, 1945, in Exeter, Ont., died Feb. 15, 2013, in Toronto, of cancer.

‘Don’t talk too long. No more than five minutes, Jeremy. Seven, max. There’s nothing worse than that tap on the shoulder!”

John MacNaughton’s words in the last week of his life, instructing his friend Jeremy Smith (whose portrait of John appears here) to be brief when delivering his eulogy, sum up much of what you’d want to know about John: that he was efficient, considerate, humorous, dependable, and principled – even as he mapped out his own funeral.

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John was the successful product of a loving family, a small Ontario town, and the so-called Protestant work ethic. He liked to do things right.

Following his much-loved sister Heather to Western’s Huron College, he earned a BA in economics. He then considered the doors left ajar by admirers of his father, Charlie, a respected provincial cabinet minister. But John chose not to pursue politics – a surprise to many, not least to John himself.

Instead, as graduation approached, he applied – with some 2,000 others – to be a host in the Ontario pavilion at Expo 67, the coming-of-age celebration in Montreal that hurled Canada onto the world stage.

That summer, John’s idyllic Exeter boyhood horizons broadened. He adapted to Expo’s “Man and His World” theme immediately, and developed many of his closest life-long friendships within the Ontario pavilion (three of the speakers at his funeral were Expo mates).

John’s great successes in the financial world have been well documented: president and CEO of Burns Fry; president of Nesbitt Burns; and founding president and CEO of the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board. His many contributions to the broader community included stints as chairman of the Princess Margaret Hospital Foundation, vice-chair of the University Health Network, and member of the Prime Minister’s Advisory Committee on the Public Service.

John was known to his family and friends as a gifted wordsmith. And not just in English: Disregarding his limited vocabulary and unique accent, he nonetheless insisted on giving a robust speech in French at a friend’s wedding in France, to the amazement of the bridegroom and the amusement of his Gallic listeners.

And at the surprise party his wife, Gail, organized to mark his 40th birthday, with guests dressed as they were when they first met him – a distinguished man in boy scout uniform; a mature woman in her decades-old prom dress; several former Expo friends squeezed into their uniforms – John responded to their congratulatory speeches with a spontaneous speech of his own, showcasing each friend with a personal anecdote. His remarks, entertaining yet gentle, gave nothing away about himself or his blossoming career, but characteristically, turned the light back on those who had come to wish him well.

Last summer, Expo 67’s Ontario pavilion reunited in Montreal for a 45th anniversary. Much of John was unchanged, signature swatch of hair over his forehead, Gail as ever by his side, subtle humour still intact. Sadly, soon afterward his life changed. “The cancer’s spread into my spine and left hip,” he told Jeremy. “My whole left side’s a mess … which just goes to show I was never meant to be a socialist!” John, the lifelong Conservative, could pull some sunshine out of the cloudiest of days.

After the reunion, as we re-savoured our time together in e-mails, John sent this: “We were doubly blessed – as a generation graduating into a Canada of almost limitless opportunities, and as a group of individuals that had been given an enchanted summer as their launching pad.

Perhaps John’s own launching was the most extraordinary of all.

Written by Alena Schram, based on the memories of Expo friends Mary Ouchterlony and Terrence Tyers.

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