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Despite an illustrious career in medicine, politics had always been at the back of Robert Elgie’s mind. <137>Robert Elgie speaks in the Legislature, Nov. 16, 1982. Credit: Dennis Robinson / The Globe and Mail<137><137><252><137> (Dennis Robinson/The Globe and Mail)
Despite an illustrious career in medicine, politics had always been at the back of Robert Elgie’s mind. <137>Robert Elgie speaks in the Legislature, Nov. 16, 1982. Credit: Dennis Robinson / The Globe and Mail<137><137><252><137> (Dennis Robinson/The Globe and Mail)

Obituary

Robert Elgie’s ethos was leading by example Add to ...

The joke among his family was that if he were offered a job that paid less money he’d take it.

He received nominal pay for the public position he held on the Ontario Press Council from 2001, and $25,000 a year as its chairman from 2006 until his death.

Even better, as far as the family joke went, was his annual salary as chairman of the Ontario Greenbelt Council in 2005. He was paid $1.

Robert Goldwin Elgie was born into privilege. His parents Goldwin Elgie, a Toronto lawyer, and his wife, Vivian McHenry, were married nine years before their only child arrived on January 22, 1929. During the 1930s and forties, Goldwin Elgie served as a Conservative MPP.

Vivian, a hostess who could throw a garden party for a thousand without batting an eyelash, supported his political career but she lived with a painful secret.

It would never do for word to leak out that her husband was an abusive alcoholic. Silenced and ashamed, her son, Robert, kept a rope tied to his bed so he could climb out the window. Reluctant to discuss the unhappiness of a conflicted childhood, it’s unclear whether he ever used the rope.

Ironically, it was his father who provided the escape into a world that would change his son’s life for the good.

In 1937, when Toronto was in the grip of a polio epidemic, Goldwin Elgie, believing that Robert would be safer in the country, sent him to live with his maternal grandparents in Prince Edward County, at the eastern end of Lake Ontario.

Freed from the terror of unpredictability at home, the 8-year-old flourished.

In winter, access to his grandparent’s small farm was by cutter horse over the snow.

With no other Grade 3 students attending the one-room schoolhouse, Bob Elgie was bumped into Grade 4.

He helped sell butter and eggs at the Belleville market on weekends.

He developed a love of farmers and farming. He saw how communities banded together for barn raisings and wheat thrashing.

Those experiences formed the values that would shape Dr. Elgie’s adult years.

Life was about hard work. Life was about helping others. Life was about far more than material wealth.

Back in Toronto, Robert Elgie dutifully followed the path his father mapped out for him.

He was expected to go into law, then into politics, expectations he exceeded.

He received his BA from the University of Western Ontario in 1950 and his LLB from Osgoode Hall Law School.

About to graduate as a lawyer, Robert Elgie informed his father that he and a couple of classmates were planning on opening a practice together. “Oh no,” replied the senior Elgie. “You’ll go into practice with me.”

Robert Elgie got off this paternal hook by announcing his decision to study medicine. He said he wanted to combine the discipline with law. Goldwin Elgie, forever ambitious for his son, could hardly object and footed the bill.

Mr. Elgie spent the next 11 years in medical school, first at the University of Ottawa, and then at University of Toronto. Encountering a charismatic neurosurgeon, he decided that he shared the calling.

After graduation, he taught at the medical school of Queens University and later as a staff member at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital.

Neurosurgery was one of the highest-paid medical specialties, yet Dr. Elgie regularly billed far less than other neurosurgeons.

A provincial study into doctor’s salaries revealed the reason; it was because he spent more time with his patients.

Kind and deeply caring, Dr. Elgie couldn’t abide one trait in others: discrimination, or the belittling of those without power.

One morning, offended by a particular nurse who treated orderlies with disrespect, Dr. Elgie greeted the nurse’s station with the words “Good morning ladies. And you too, Miss Jones.”

In 1955, Bob Elgie met his lifelong love, Nancy Stewart. She was from London, Ont., and a psychology student at Queen’s University.

She describes their meeting, and resulting long marriage, as a love story. The handsome 6’1” lawyer with the booming voice, immersed in premed studies at the University of Ottawa, invited her to a Christmas ball. She agreed, staying overnight with an aunt.

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