Like many successful middle-aged businessmen, John Saksun spent too much time at work and didn’t get enough exercise. Consequently, in the mid-1970s his doctor told him to take up a sport, perhaps golf, which would provide exercise and relieve some of the pressures of work.
Mr. Saksun, who died on Nov. 1 at the age of 94, not only took up golf, he also bought into a struggling company that made golf clubs. The new business became as successful as his other line of work, making aircraft parts. Of the three patents the self-taught machine shop owner held, two of them were for golf equipment: one a specialized rake for sand traps that is still used by many golf courses, the other a composite golf club.
His clubs, sold under the brand name Accuform, soon received rave reviews from golf professionals in the United States, and were used on tour by many Canadian professionals including Dan Halldorson, a leading pro on the PGA tour at the time.
The Globe and Mail published a story on the Saksuns and Accuform in 1983. The story quoted the elder Mr. Saksun describing how making a golf club is not difficult once you have mastered making pieces for the most sophisticated planes in the world.
“When you can make things like this,” the elder Saksun said proudly, running his hand over a finely machined block of aluminum that will eventually be a bulkhead fuse box on an F/A-18 jet, “it is easy to make golf clubs, if you know what you’re doing.”
Some experts in the field declared the Accuform clubs to be “perfect.”
Mr. Saksun’s story is the classic tale of a self-made man, an immigrant to Canada who overcame a tough start in life and made his own luck through hard work and a talent for turning rejection into opportunity.
John Saksun was born May 3, 1922, in Zalobin, in eastern Slovakia (then a region of Czechoslovakia), about equidistant from the Polish border to the north, Ukraine to the east and Hungary to the south. His father had gone to Pittsburgh to work, intending to send for his family later, but he was killed in an industrial accident. His mother then went to Canada to establish herself, leaving young John in the care of his grandparents.
John was 16 when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain sold Czechoslovakia down the river in 1938 at the infamous Munich meeting with Adolf Hitler. Sitting in class in Zalobin, his teacher asked him: “Don’t you have family in America?” Young John answered that his mother was actually in Canada. “Well what are you doing here?” asked the teacher, who along with almost everyone else knew the horror that was coming, first the breakup of Czechoslovakia and then the Second World War.
John left soon afterward, taking trains across Europe from landlocked Czechoslovakia to a port where he could board a ship to Canada.
“The train went through Germany and he was nervous when they went over his papers,” said his son, John Saksun, an engineer who worked with his father all his life and who now runs The Queensway Machine Products Ltd., the successful business his father started.
Young John Saksun landed in the port of Halifax in 1938 and took the train to meet his mother and his new stepfather in Toronto. He started work right away and set about learning English and his trade as a machinist. His social life centred on his family and the church, where he first met Mary Beres when she was 14 and he was 17.
“He told his friends, ‘You stay away from her. That’s the girl I am going to marry.’ And they did marry when he was 21,” his son said.
At first they lived in her parents’ house, then they bought a small property on the Queensway in Etobicoke, then a semi-rural area. He set up his business in his garage, but he didn’t have a lathe so he went to see a man he knew who had one at Jarvis and Front. The man had a spare lathe and said Mr. Saksun could have it and pay for it a bit at a time.
Mr. Saksun’s shop was a 20-minute drive from the de Havilland aircraft plant and almost every day he would go there and look for work. One day, he got lucky. The man in charge of outside contractors had noticed him hanging around and asked if he could try his hand at making a complex aircraft part that their usual supplier couldn’t master. It was a Friday and Mr. Saksun promised he would have it ready by Monday. He asked for the blueprints and took them back to his small shop. He worked all weekend without much sleep and returned with two machine-tooled parts on Monday morning.
They were perfect. From then on he had a seemingly endless supply of work from de Havilland and other aircraft manufacturers. He made parts for a number of civil aircraft including the Beaver bush plane that de Havilland designed after the war.
He also did work for A.V. Roe, the Canadian subsidiary of the British firm that was building the Avro Arrow, the advanced Canadian jet fighter that prime minister John Diefenbaker killed in 1959.
“When the Avro Arrow shut down over 90 per cent of his work was on that plane,” his son said. “He recovered from that and went on to work for de Havilland and its other planes such as the Twin Otter and Dash 8 as well as turning out precision parts for McDonnell Douglas, which was also in Toronto near the airport, and Boeing.”
In the mid-1970s, The Queensway Machine Products did a job for a golf club manufacturer who couldn’t pay his bills. Instead of forcing him in bankruptcy, the Saksun firm took over his company.
The golf-club business was sold in 1993; the firm now concentrates on commercial work as well as aircraft parts.
Mr. Saksun continued to play golf into his 90s and though he spent time in Florida when he was older, he only stopped going to work three years ago.
John Saksun leaves his wife, Mary; son, John; daughter, Jana; and two grandchildren.
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