He was born into a family of English aristocrats, descended from the fourth Duke of Buckingham, but during the nearly six decades he lived in Newfoundland and Quebec, he came to exemplify the sort of positive can-do spirit Canadians like to think of as typically their own. Though he trained as an economist, David Morgan Grenville’s real expertise was solving problems and making things happen.
“He loved a gnarly problem – it got his creative juices flowing,” said his younger son, Andrew. Mr. Grenville faced a very gnarly problem when he was hired to be on the startup team of the British Newfoundland Development Corp. (Brinco) while still in his 20s.
Newfoundland Premier Joey Smallwood, eager to speed up development of his impoverished province, offered in 1952 what he termed the biggest real-estate deal of the 20th century to a group of British companies if they would develop the frigid wilderness of Labrador. Newfoundland could not afford to do it and its neighbour Quebec refused to share the cost because the province (then ruled by Maurice Duplessis) disputed the Labrador border. Brinco’s assignment was to build a massive hydroelectric power plant, North America’s largest single source of energy, at Churchill Falls.
Today Churchill Falls powers the lights of New York and Montreal, but in the late 1950s and much of the 60s, the odds of raising sufficient money for this private-sector initiative, of getting Quebec on side and building a seven-million-horsepower plant in a place no one can get to were not favourable. A determined and skillful group of entrepreneurs that included Mr. Grenville made it a reality. He was the right-hand man of the company’s first general manager, William Southam, from 1954 on, and worked closely with every subsequent president of the company until 1970.
Mr. Grenville died of pneumonia in Knowlton, Que., on Nov. 14, at the age of 85.
The company had to start from scratch, bringing in a rail line for supplies and machinery and building an airstrip. As development manager and later assistant general manager, Mr. Grenville oversaw the construction of a town to house the army of workers needed, complete with schools, a hospital, shops, churches and a recreation centre for some 5,000 people – engineers, truckers, geologists, heavy-equipment operators, doctors, nurses, cooks and their families.
The terrain was treacherous, winters were punishing, and work could progress only in the summer and fall. In November, 1969, Donald McParland, the company’s president, and four other members of the management team were killed when the executive jet, flying from Churchill Falls to Montreal crashed into a mountainside soon after takeoff.
“David was supposed to be on that plane, but his boss asked him to stay behind to do something,” his widow Patsy Grenville said.
David Morgan Grenville was born in London in February, 1928, the son of Mary Murray and Harry Morgan-Grenville, OBE. His father ran an aviation company that made amphibious planes. David attended Stowe School in Buckinghamshire, an English private school that took over the country estate that had been the seat of the Dukes of Buckingham, his ancestors, until they were forced to sell.
After military service in India, he obtained a master’s degree in economics from Magdalene College at Cambridge University, where he met and fell in love with Nancy Martin, a bright young woman from Washington, D.C., who was also studying economics.
Since postwar Britain was a bleak place, offering few opportunities for an ambitious, adventuresome young man, Mr. Grenville followed Nancy to the States, where he took an MBA degree at the University of Kansas. The two married in 1951 and went on to have a daughter and two sons.
Mr. Grenville worked as a roughneck in the oil fields of New Mexico, then joined Rycade Oil in Houston, Tex., as an oil scout and land man; that is, a negotiator of drilling rights. But he did not feel entirely at home in the United States and turned to Canada as a place in tune with the British traditions he knew. In 1954, he began his work with Brinco in Montreal, settling the family on a farm he and Nancy bought in the Eastern Townships.
In his book Brinco: The Story of Churchill Falls, Philip Smith recounts a visit to the farm by the company president Bill Southam, who was astonished to see Mr. Grenville, the aristocrat, happily, if inelegantly engaged in farm chores: “Ushered into the old farmhouse, Southam raised his bushy eyebrows incredulously and said: ‘Rather rococo, isn’t it David?’ ”
After leaving Brinco in 1970, Mr. Grenville moved back to London and went to work for Rio Tinto-Zinc Corp., a participant in the Anglo-French project to build a tunnel under the English Channel. The thorny problem Mr. Grenville faced as secretary of the project-management executive committee was how to make the British and French teams of engineers and builders work together – a job for which he was well prepared by the wrangling he had seen between Quebec and Newfoundland over control of Churchill Falls.
After the successful completion of one mile of tunnel as a test in 1975, the project was cancelled by the government of Harold Wilson because of escalating inflation and rising interest rates. (The 50-kilometre “Chunnel” was finally opened in 1994.)
The family moved back to Canada with a sense of relief, settling in St. John’s, where Mr. Grenville helped establish C-CORE, the Centre for Cold Ocean Resources Engineering, at Memorial University. The centre brought together scientists, engineers and oil industry researchers to study the different types of ice to understand how off-shore drilling can be undertaken more safely.
“They were very original people and great fun to be around, not at all conservative, but quite leftish,” recalls Nancy Grenville’s friend Anne Hart, a writer and librarian who headed the Centre for Newfoundland Studies at Memorial. (Mr. Grenville’s papers are now kept there.)
“They made an impression. They wanted to know everything that could be known about Newfoundland, read widely and travelled throughout the province in a van with a bed in it.”
In February, 1982, the semi-submersible drilling rig Ocean Ranger toppled in a storm off the coast of Newfoundland, killing all 84 crew members aboard. When the federal and provincial governments appointed a joint royal commission to investigate the causes of the tragedy, Mr. Grenville was made its secretary responsible for organizing hearings, managing the egos of the commissioners and making sure the final reports were produced on time. For two years, the commission interviewed witnesses, examined rig components, conducted research before producing two reports, one dealing with why the Ocean Ranger sank and why none of the crew survived, and a second report with 70 recommendations for changes that might avert similar disasters in future. Most of these changes have been implemented.
After several years doing consulting work and helping the startup of a company developing new fish-processing technology, Mr. Grenville retired to his beloved farm in Quebec with Nancy. When she was diagnosed with lung cancer, he cared for her until her death in 1994. Perhaps to cope with his grief, Mr. Grenville in his can-do fashion hired researchers and produced a manual on how to care for a dying person at home – a manual he himself could have used.
Two years later, he married Patsy Jequier, a Swiss-born operating-room nurse who had been a friend of his wife. The two had 18 good years together, travelling and building a new farmhouse on his land in Sutton until Mr. Grenville’s increasing confusion prompted them to move to a larger town with better health care.
Mr. Grenville, who could make an enterprise run like clockwork, had a large collection of antique clocks, all in good repair and chiming the right time. According to his son, “suddenly the clocks were beyond him.” His inability to keep the clocks wound signalled his late-life deterioration; formerly an unstoppable conversationalist, he lost the ability to read or talk.
David Morgan Grenville leaves his wife; daughter, Sally; sons, Geoff and Andrew; and sister, Rosalind Weston.
Follow us on Twitter: