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Thor Eaton’s early interest was rock ‘n’ roll and promoting concerts. He and his business partner, Ken Walker, ran a concert promotion firm called Eaton-Walker Associates, that included his younger brother, George. (Courtesy of Nicole Eaton)
Thor Eaton’s early interest was rock ‘n’ roll and promoting concerts. He and his business partner, Ken Walker, ran a concert promotion firm called Eaton-Walker Associates, that included his younger brother, George. (Courtesy of Nicole Eaton)

OBITUARY

Eaton’s department store heir Thor Eaton loved horses and rock music Add to ...

Thor Eaton, who died last week, was one of the four Eaton sons who inherited the Eaton’s department-store empire, a business so successful that it once accounted for half the department-store sales in Canada. Though he owned a quarter of the company, he never worked there, except for a brief period one summer when he was a student.

“He was uninterested and uninvolved,” said his wife, Conservative Senator Nicole Eaton (née Courtois). “Once, when we were in a department store in Tokyo, he gave me a tour and showed me exactly how a department store worked, so he understood the business.”

When the Eaton’s department-store chain was in trouble in the 1990s, Mr. Eaton pitched in, meeting with shoppers and store staff in Alberta, while his three brothers covered the rest of the country. Eaton’s went bankrupt in 1999, after its revenues plummeted in the previous decade. The Eaton family was not left destitute, however. They had gone public with the Eaton’s department-store chain in 1998 and sold their 41-per-cent interest in CTV in January of that year.

Thor Eaton’s early interest was rock ‘n’ roll and promoting concerts. He and his business partner, Ken Walker, ran a concert promotion firm called Eaton-Walker Associates, that included his younger brother, George. In 1969, the year of the Woodstock Festival, the partners bankrolled the Toronto Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival at Varsity Stadium, with acts such as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and The Doors.

The next year, Thor and his brother financed one of the most unusual musical events in Canada, the Festival Express, which he also organized with Ken Walker. The transcontinental rock-music tour featured such major performers as Janis Joplin and The Grateful Dead. What set it apart was that the musicians travelled together on a chartered train between venues. Film of that tour lay unused for decades, until it was made into a documentary shown at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2003.

Thor Eaton negotiated the rental of the passenger train from CN. The railway was reluctant at first, but Mr. Eaton pressed an uncle on his mother’s side, a successful businessman in Montreal, who was able to help convince the company to rent out the train. The musicians performed at concerts along the route, in Toronto, Winnipeg and Calgary.

Mr. Eaton, who in 1970 had long blond hair, befriended many of the rock stars, having a whisky with Janis Joplin before every show. On another occasion, John Lennon and Yoko Ono visited him at his family’s house north of the city.

Just before the Festival Express, a group of radical fans visited Mr. Eaton unannounced at his office in Toronto. They demanded free tickets, free food and free dope. Mr. Eaton politely threw them out of his office.

Thor Edgar Eaton was born in Toronto on Aug. 22, 1942, to the former Signy Stefansson, an Icelandic-Canadian, from whom he inherited his Nordic name and blond hair, and John David Eaton, who was a grandson of Timothy Eaton, founder of the Eaton’s empire. Thor went to St. Andrew’s College, north of Toronto, and the University of New Brunswick. After he left UNB, he worked for a while as a stock broker with Dominion Securities.

When his father died in 1973, Thor and his three brothers, always known as the Eaton Boys, inherited the department store and catalogue business, as well as other interests, including CFTO, Canada’s most prosperous private television station.

By this time, Mr. Eaton had eased out of rock promotion and taken up horse racing. He bought a number of thoroughbreds, among the first were three he bought from the stables owned by Conn Smythe, the late owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs. As an aside, Mr. Eaton was a lifelong fan of the Toronto hockey team and a former director of Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd., which owned the team.

Mr. Eaton started racing his horses first at Woodbine and other tracks in Ontario. Breeding horses became a business and he had stables at his farm, Eaton Hall, in Caledon, north of Toronto. Later he also operated a stable in Ocala, Fla. (known as the “horse capital of the world”), and raced in the winter season at tracks such as Hialeah, near Miami.

“He had hundreds of horses over his career and we won a lot of races over the years,” said Mike Doyle, the Irish-born trainer who worked with Mr. Eaton for decades. “I think two of the best horses over the years were Bessarabian and Muskoka Weekend. Thor was a wonderful man to work with. He was always calm and dedicated to the horse world.”

In his book The Eatons: The Rise and Fall of Canada’s Royal Family, Rod McQueen reported that Thor Eaton was once offered $2-million for Bessarabian but turned it down. The horse had 18 wins and earned more than a million dollars.

Mr. Eaton’s investment in his horses was far more than merely financial. His wife recalled the time when one of his horses stumbled at a race in Toronto. It had a broken leg and was put down a short while later. Thor was visibly upset and left the track. In the old days he might have had a stiff whisky, but he was a teetotaler for the last 30 years of his life. “He was so upset and flustered, he said let’s go have a Dairy Queen,” Ms. Eaton said.

Thor Eaton was a voracious reader and the bookshelves in his house are crammed with mystery novels, histories and political biographies. He read five newspapers a day: The Globe and Mail, The National Post, The Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, and the Toronto Sun. Mr. Eaton was fascinated with politics, and was a strong supporter of the Conservative Party of Canada.

“He was fiscally conservative but socially liberal. He was far too bohemian to care about how people lived their lives,” his wife said.

His pastimes included salmon fishing, and he would spend weeks on the Bonaventure River on the border between Quebec and New Brunswick, and in later years on the Eagle River in Labrador. On a salmon fishing trip in 1997, he complained that his vision was a bit fuzzy in one eye. He was soon blind in that eye and at the end of his life was losing vision in the other eye as well.

Mr. Eaton died on April 10 at home in Toronto after a sudden heart attack, at the age of 74. He leaves his wife, Nicole; son, Thor, Jr.; daughter, Cléophée; two grandchildren; and three brothers, John Craig, Fredrik and George.

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