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Philanthropist Ralph Halbert.Courtesy of the Family.

Philanthropist Ralph Halbert, who has died at the age of 88, had an idea 30 years ago about how important innovation was to the world and how collaboration among universities and across national boundaries could lead to that. His belief that travel and co-operation could help break down barriers prompted him to back a number of initiatives in Canada, the United States and Israel.

“It has taken the world 25 years to catch up with Ralph Halbert’s vision,” said Janice Stein, founding director of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto. She is also chair of the Halbert Networks Program. “His great achievement was to bring together networks of scholars.”

Dr. Halbert’s generosity helped create an innovative biometric system that ensures the accurate identification of Syrian refugees in Jordan so that much-needed cash transfers will reach their rightful recipients.

“The way they transfer and identify the cash resources is through retinal technology,” said Joseph Wong, the Ralph and Roz Halbert professor of innovation at the Munk School. (Dr. Halbert funded the chair.)

“Ralph was very encouraging. When the professorship was announced we had an opportunity to talk at length about what his vision for the professorship would be, [and] that innovation had to have a positive impact around the world,” Prof. Wong said.

Ralph Halbert was born in Toronto on April 1, 1930, the son of Hy and Faye Halbert, Jewish immigrants from Europe. His father was a furrier with a modest business. Young Ralph graduated from North Toronto Collegiate and went to the University of Toronto, graduating in dentistry in 1954. He played hockey at U of T and was a keen athlete all his life. He also went to the University of Illinois in Chicago to study orthodontics. When he returned to Toronto, he practised as an orthodontist for about 10 years, gradually reducing his practice to concentrate on real estate developments.

“He and his partners at what became Glen Corporation created residential communities, business parks and commercial developments throughout the Greater Toronto Area,” his son Daniel said.

“One residential project he did in Richmond Hill was called Bayview Hill and he co-developed the Promenade shopping centre in Vaughan in conjunction with Cadillac Fairview, and other business parks throughout the York Region.”

Once Dr. Halbert became successful in his business dealings, he made substantial donations to educational and innovation programs in Canada and Israel. His philanthropy centred on education because he realized his own success was built on education.

“He was involved in higher education and philanthropy, which were two strong themes throughout his life. Other things that Ralph was involved in were Fulbright Canada, which is an educational exchange between Canada and the U.S. Ralph was a board member of Fulbright. One of Ralph’s interests throughout his life was supporting higher education and exchanges with the U.S.A., and particularly with Israel,” his wife, Roz Halbert, said.

Apart from the professorship that produced the work on retinal recognition for refugees, the Halbert family was involved with a number of education-related charities in Canada and Israel.

“Ralph had an extraordinarily deep commitment to the importance of higher education. He believed that education was transformative for people and that it created entirely new possibilities for their lives,” said Prof. Stein, who described him as an active donor rather than a passive one.

He was chairman of the Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and then became chairman of the international board of governors of the Hebrew University. The Halberts also co-sponsored the Halbert Centre for Canadian Studies there in 1995, with the goal of “fostering understanding and knowledge of Canada” in Israel, particularly among academics.

“It was a two-way street, Canadian professors and students went to Israel, and Israeli professors and students came here,” Mrs. Halbert said.

Dr. Halbert was a physically active person. He was a keen cyclist, he swam and was a member of two central Toronto tennis clubs. He mixed his love of tennis with his philanthropy.

“He was a co-founder of Ramat Hasharon Israel Tennis Centre that encouraged both Israeli and Arab children to learn respect for one another through playing tennis,” Mrs. Halbert said. “It’s the largest social-services centre for children in Israel, and it’s used to promote [the] social, physical and physiological well-being of the students.”

In Canada, Dr. Halbert was one of the backers of the Canadian Open tennis tournament (which had a series of tobacco companies as its title sponsor in the 1970s and 1980s and is now known as the Rogers Cup) at York University.

“We started with people like Bjorn Borg when he was a kid and Jimmy Connors and so on. My husband was very instrumental in developing the beginnings of what is now the Masters tournaments,” Mrs. Halbert said.

Also supportive of filmmaking, the Halberts were early backers of the Festival of Festivals, now known as the Toronto International Film Festival. Mrs. Halbert said the venture was a lot of fun.

Their son, Daniel, noted that their legacy includes contributions to the world of visual art as well. “My mother and father were both supporters of the Art Gallery of Ontario as well as the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa. There’s a famous artist, Alex Janvier, who my parents commissioned to do a piece which is called Morning Star, completed in 1993, and it’s in the Grand Hall in the domed ceiling,” Daniel said.

Dr. Halbert died in Toronto on Dec. 4. He leaves his wife, Roz; children, Michael, Daniel and Perri; 13 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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