Fraser Fell had many jobs, most of which saw him with a seat at a boardroom table. During his teenage years in the 1940s, though, the future power broker toted clubs around the grounds of the Windermere Golf and Country Club as a caddy. The golf course in Ontario’s Muskoka Lakes region was a forested retreat for bankers, lawyers and businessmen from Toronto, but one of its most notable patrons at the time was Billy Bishop, Canada’s flying ace of the First World War.
Mr. Bishop would arrive in eye-catching style, flying low over the grounds to announce his presence with the buzz of propeller blades before landing his float plane on nearby Lake Rosseau. Mr. Fell liked to recall those visits, later telling family that the club manager often ordered him to go check in on Mr. Bishop as he played a round. Apparently Mr. Bishop had the habit of taking his shirt off while playing, so Mr. Fell’s task was to ask him to put it back on.
Windermere was already a special place for the young Mr. Fell, whose maternal grandfather Albert Matthews, the onetime lieutenant-governor of Ontario, had been among the club’s early supporters and chairman for 25 years. Mr. Fell himself would later be president of the club for almost two decades, one among a vast roster of leadership positions at businesses, private clubs and charitable organizations.
Windermere and the nearby family cottage, dubbed Clovelly after a village in his ancestors’ native England, remained a lifelong getaway. Yet, Mr. Fell, a lawyer by training who was managing partner of one of Bay Street’s largest law firms and also pursued a high-profile career in business and philanthropy, never had much time for golf later in life. And unlike the flamboyant Mr. Bishop, Mr. Fell didn’t court attention.
“You never saw him much in the papers. He had a terrific network of friends and other lawyers and business people, but he always worked behind the scenes,” says his brother Tony Fell, the former chief executive officer of RBC Dominion Securities.
“Not many people took on as many leading roles as Fraser did. But he did all these wonderful things quietly in the community,” says retired businessman Ralph Barford, who first met Mr. Fell when they were both in Grade 7 at University of Toronto Schools.
Mr. Fell, who died on April 23 at the age of 91, loved to race his two-person Albacore sailboat around Lake Rosseau, and he might have adopted the nautical phrase, “steady as you go,” as his life motto, Mr. Barford says. “You stay on the same tack and you persist.”
Fraser Matthews Fell was born in Toronto on June 17, 1928, the first of four children for Charles Percival and Grace Elizabeth (née Matthews) Fell. Grace’s father worked in the investment business and served as lieutenant-governor of the province from 1937 to 1946 while Charles himself was a longtime leader of the Empire Life Insurance Company. The family home was on Park Lane Circle in the city’s ultra-wealthy Bridle Path area.
Still, childhood friend Mr. Barford says, Mr. Fell had a talent for relating to others from a young age. He was friendly with everyone in their class and was “fair and temperate,” traits he would carry throughout his life. Mr. Fell attended McMaster University, where he met Margot Crossgrove. The pair were engaged for five years, holding off on marriage while Mr. Fell completed a degree at Osgoode Hall Law School. They wed in 1953, the same year Mr. Fell was called to the bar and joined the law firm Fasken & Calvin (now Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP).
The couple settled for a few years in Don Mills before moving to a home on Glenorchy Road, close to his childhood home in the Bridle Path. They lived there for more than 50 years, raising five children – two boys and three girls – and countless dogs.
Mr. Fell joined the Fasken partnership at a young age and was still in his 30s when firm leader C.C. Calvin died unexpectedly. Yet Mr. Fell and his partners at the time declined a proposal to merge with venerable rival McCarthy & McCarthy (now McCarthy Tétrault LLP). “It was a bold decision. It showed you the confidence the young lawyers had in themselves,” says Alan Schwartz, a former managing partner of Fasken.
He dined regularly at the Toronto Club and University Club (and naturally became chairman of both), and proved adept at landing new business for the firm. “He was very good at winning the confidence of clients,” Mr. Schwartz said. “When Fraser spoke, they listened, and in fractious situations, he was a calming influence.”
Mr. Fell, who was named Queen’s Counsel in 1965, seemed set for a long legal career and became managing partner of his law firm in 1978. But an affinity for the hands-on work of business eventually drew him away from a formal law practice.
In the early 1980s, he became CEO of Dome Mines Ltd., and presided over a series of mergers and acquisitions culminating in the 1987 amalgamation that created Placer Dome Inc., North America’s largest gold producer at the time.
While chairman of Placer Dome, Mr. Fell also held the prestigious post of chairman of the World Gold Council. Later, he helped shepherd the sale of Royal Trust to the Royal Bank of Canada, and took over as CEO of Gentra Inc., an investment arm formed through a spinoff of part of the assets.
“Fraser operated to a different standard, all the while seeming to be unflappable,” says Jim Walker, managing partner of Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan Capital Partners, who worked with Mr. Fell at Gentra.
He drew on those same talents in his volunteer work with hospital boards, where he was one of the “key architects” of a merger between two major hospitals in 1986, says Tennys Hanson, president of the Toronto General & Western Hospital Foundation.
Six years earlier, Mr. Fell had a massive heart attack, but surviving the experience only seemed to increase his engagement with the health care system, says his youngest son, Mark Fell, who is an executive with the Royal Bank of Canada.
Michael Baker, long-time physician-in-chief at the University Health Network, says Mr. Fell was sensitive, caring and even vulnerable. “You might have thought he would be indecisive or equivocal, but he would make a crisp decision and move on.”
Mr. Fell’s achievements in business and philanthropy defy listing and for his wide-ranging work in health care, education and the arts, he was named a member of the Order of Canada in 1995. Still, “the heart of Dad’s identity was family,” Mark Fell says. The elder Mr. Fell took pride in his children and grandchildren, keeping careful track of their careers, and spent as much time as possible with his wife. “They did everything together – any of the evening functions that we had, she was there,” Ms. Hanson says. “They were always both smiling when they were together.” The two had been married for 64 years when Mrs. Fell died in 2017.
After her death, Mr. Fell spent his final years at the Amica Balmoral Club seniors’ residence in Toronto, where he died last month of multiple organ failure. The family held a small funeral for him at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church, where Mr. Fell had been a deacon. Physical-distancing requirements in place because of COVID-19 meant that only his five children, the minister and two musicians could attend in person while the service was webcast to others. The family plans to hold a larger memorial at a later date.
Mr. Fell leaves his children, David, Susan, Leslie, Martha and Mark, as well as 14 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.