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Arthur Scace is seen here after receiving the insignia of 'Member of the Order of Canada,' during the Order of Canada investiture ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, on Nov. 18, 2005.

Cpl Issa Pare/Rideau Hall

Arthur Scace was halfway through his interview to join the board of directors at Lallemand Inc., a Montreal-based producer of yeast, when it dawned on him that he had nearly bankrupted the company – and that was one of the reasons they wanted him.

As a young tax lawyer in the early 1970s, Mr. Scace went to Canada’s Tariff Board and successfully argued that yeast that Bowes Company was importing loose in bags from Anheuser-Busch in the United States should be duty-free, avoiding an 18.5-per-cent tariff applied to much the same yeast when it was processed into blocks.

Jean Chagnon, who later took over Lallemand from his father, was an observer at that hearing in Ottawa and remembers Mr. Scace – low-key and soft-spoken, still in his early 30s – outmanoeuvring the opposing lawyers, who thought their case was a slam dunk. “He won the unwinnable argument. And as a result, we basically started losing a lot of money," Mr. Chagnon said, and the company was forced to sell off parts of its business to save itself.

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Decades later, after Lallemand had regrouped and expanded, Mr. Scace joined the board in 1996 and became “a fantastic and wise adviser” to the company for more than 20 years, Mr. Chagnon said. He would tell colleagues, "this guy was so good, and almost killed our company, so we decided he was better on our side.”

Mr. Scace died on May 3 at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, after suffering cardiac arrest. He was 81.

A brilliant tax lawyer, Mr. Scace became a quietly towering figure in Canadian business over a distinguished career at McCarthy Tétrault LLP. As managing partner of McCarthy & McCarthy, one of the firm’s forebears, he spearheaded a series of mergers that helped build it into a national powerhouse. Yet he was revered as much for his intellectual range and gentlemanly manner as for his intricate understanding of Canada’s tax laws.

Mr. Scace also served as the first non-executive chairman of the Bank of Nova Scotia, as Canadian secretary for the Rhodes Scholarship Trust for 33 years, and as chair of the Canadian Opera Company, juggling an array of corporate board seats and philanthropic endeavours.

“He was the gold standard,” said Robert Prichard, a lawyer and former president of the University of Toronto. “There are these rare individuals who are so superior at everything they do, they come to be defined by being the best of the best."

Arthur Richard Andrew Scace was born July 22, 1938, in Toronto, where he grew up with his younger brother, Andrew, now a retired banker. Their father, Arthur L. Scace was a real estate lawyer, and their mother, Jean C. Scace, was a buyer for Eaton’s who travelled by boat to France to source the wares for the store.

As a child, Mr. Scace attended Brown School on Avenue Road, then University of Toronto Schools (UTS), where he would later be a board member as an adult. His family wasn’t wealthy, but in almost every childhood photo he can be seen wearing a tie.

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At Trinity College in the University of Toronto, he had one of the rare false starts in a stellar academic career. In February of his first year, he received a warning that if he didn’t get down to work, he would fail. By the end of that school year, he was at the top of his class. In his third year, Mr. Scace took a formative trip, backpacking solo for three months from Morocco to Afghanistan, and wrote a prize-winning essay about it for Saturday Night magazine. He lost so much weight while travelling that after he returned, he was cut at tryouts for U of T’s varsity football team.

He met his future wife, Susan Kernohan, while at Trinity, where she also studied, inviting her to the college’s Conversat ball in January, 1959. For their next date, they went skating at The Jolly Miller tavern, and “he in his hockey boots and me in my figure skates danced on the ice," Mrs. Scace said. They were together 61 years, married for 57.

After graduating, he earned a Master of Arts at Harvard University, then won a Rhodes Scholarship and went to Corpus Christi College, at Oxford University, for a Bachelor of Laws. He added a Canadian law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School at York University.

In 1967, Mr. Scace started at McCarthy & McCarthy, specializing in tax law, and became a partner five years later. He rose to be the firm’s managing partner from 1989 to 1996, then its national chairman. He could explain the intention and technical nuance of a tax statute with precision, but stood apart from other lawyers with his ability to listen, give sage advice, and talk others around to his point of view.

Where some lawyers viewed speaking to opposing counsel as a sign of weakness, Mr. Scace made it a strength, said Jim Farley, a lawyer and former judge for the Ontario Superior Court of Justice. “Arthur had the ability to go and talk with people. They knew he was a fair guy."

Mr. Scace was Queen’s Counsel, head of the income tax section of the Bar Admission Course, treasurer of the Law Society of Upper Canada, and in 2004, was named a member of the Order of Canada.

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His gravitas and authority came partly from his ability to synthesize complex information and zero in on the heart of the matter. He was decisive, his friends say, and ran meetings tightly, with no spare time to veer off course. “I thought Art Scace was such a wise man,” said Tony Arrell, chairman of Burgundy Asset Management Ltd., who had Mr. Scace “on every speed dial I ever had.”

“Some people are smart, but they’re not wise," Mr. Arrell said. "Art was smart and wise.”

He was an insatiable reader of history, politics and biographies, kept a large stamp collection and played the piano. His competitive streak came out in sports – especially tennis and squash – and there was no question of letting his children or grandchildren win.

Yet much of the time, Mr. Scace was quiet, even shy. “He was exceptional in front of people, and you always felt the warmth and friendliness from him," said Patrick Scace, his son. “But some of it, I think, was practised and he was very happy sitting in his chair, reading a book for hours, or in a boat with a fishing rod, where he could just relax and not have to talk.”

Mr. Scace had little time for small talk – to the uninitiated, he could even seem gruff – but he relished quick-witted repartee and good-natured teasing. That same demeanour helped him mentor younger people, including hundreds of Rhodes scholars sent to Oxford on his watch as Canadian secretary.

“He was a man who didn’t waste a lot of words, and what he said was always either extraordinarily pithy and worthwhile, or just great fun because of his phenomenal, wry sense of humour and the constant twinkle in his eye," said David Naylor, a former U of T president and Rhodes scholar.

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Mr. Scace’s philanthropy was wide-ranging, spanning arts, education and medicine. He and Mrs. Scace, who has served on boards including Sunnybrook Hospital and the Loran Scholars Foundation, forged a dynamic partnership and were generous with their own money, as well as highly adept at helping raise it from others. But they were “completely indifferent to recognition,” Mr. Naylor said. “It never seemed to matter to either of them."

Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, home to the country’s national opera and ballet companies, is a brick-and-mortar testament to Mr. Scace’s abilities. He chaired the Canadian Opera Company’s board, was CEO of the Canadian Opera House Corporation, and co-chaired the capital campaign that raised more than $180-million in funding. His three-pronged role made him a lynch-pin in the project, which was finished in 2006, and he remained devoted to opera – Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana was his favourite.

In later life, he still travelled often, and had planned to spend the coming Christmas with Mrs. Scace in Marrakesh, Morocco, six decades after he first saw its snake charmers and fakirs at dusk as a student.

In addition to his wife and brother, he leaves his children, Jennifer Racine and Patrick; and grandchildren, Adam Racine and Mathew and Jonathan Scace.

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