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An inscrutable man with bland, boring politics, Ontario’s Tory premier, who died Sunday at age 92, guided the province through turbulent times with a simple mantra: ‘Bland works’

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Aug. 3, 1983: Ontario premier Bill Davis smokes his pipe at a news conference in Toronto. 'The only time a politician gets in trouble is when he opens his mouth,' the long-serving Progressive Conservative leader once said.Edward Regan/The Globe and Mail

William Grenville Davis, premier of Ontario for 14 years (1971 to 1985), was a baffling, contradictory figure – a shy, inscrutable man, who liked family and football yet spent his life absorbed by political issues, travelling up to 160,000 kilometres a year; a tradition-bound, non-intellectual with a passion for ideas and experimentation that gave birth to such intellectual playgrounds as the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

The press consistently panned the performances of Mr. Davis, reporting that he was bland and boring, but he charmed voters out of the trees. Right-wing conservatives described him as a left-wing socialist; left-wingers attacked him for pandering to the right.

“Bland works,” he once said. “The only time a politician gets in trouble is when he opens his mouth.”

He was renowned for his ability to appear prosperous, calm and confident, to say little, and to lead the province through dramatic, potentially unpopular changes.

Mr. Davis died on Sunday at the age of 92 surrounded by family in Brampton, Ont., a family statement said. He was the fifth consecutive Tory leader to occupy the premier’s office since 1943 and held the office longer than any other.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was “deeply saddened” to hear of Mr. Davis’s death. “The former premier of Ontario leaves behind an incredible legacy of service – and I have no doubt that the impact of his work will be felt for generations to come,” Mr. Trudeau tweeted.

Premier Doug Ford said Mr. Davis served Ontario “with honour and distinction” and flags across the province will be lowered to half-mast in his honour.

Former prime minister Brian Mulroney said in a statement that “Canada has lost a great statesman today, and I have lost a great and true friend. Bill Davis devoted his life to Ontario, to Canada and to his family. The progress he made on many fronts as premier place him in the front ranks as one of Canada’s greatest premiers ever.”

Mr. Davis supported the controversial energy policies and constitutional endeavours of then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals; under his premiership, the free-enterprise Tory government bought a 25-per-cent stake in Suncor, an oil company, and initiated tripartite industrial strategies advocated by the New Democratic Party. And as education minister, he reformed and vastly expanded the education system – all without upsetting too many of the people too much of the time.

Yet his skills as a politician failed to help his successor. Nearly 42 years of Conservative government ended 138 days after he stepped down as premier on Feb. 8, 1985. His successor, Frank Miller, called an election and failed to win a majority government in the May 2 election. Mr. Miller’s minority government lost a vote of confidence on June 18 and on June 26, he resigned.

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Jan. 24, 1985: Mr. Davis greets then-prime minister Brian Mulroney and his wife, Mila, at the Ontario PC leadership convention at Toronto's Royal York Hotel. At left is Mr. Davis's wife, Kathleen.Hans Deryk/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Davis was born in Brampton on July 30, 1929, and distinguished himself in high school by winning the General Proficiency Trophy twice in a row. His official biographies always noted that he attended public schools. Mr. Davis was not born into the Upper Canadian elite; nor was he raised in cultured, intellectual circles. He was a Shriner (with fez) from a small town, and he clung to his roots, making sure never to let his sophistication show through.

At University College at the University of Toronto, where he studied for an arts degree, he was noted more for playing good football than for his academic prowess. “I’m no scholar,” he was happy to report, belying his earlier achievements. He preferred it to be known that he read murder mysteries, if he read at all, and watched football games on TV, if he ever saw television.

He graduated in 1951 and went on to Osgoode Hall to study law. Called to the bar in 1955, he joined his father’s law firm and became an assistant Crown attorney. His father, Grenville, had been Brampton’s Crown attorney for 30 years and the family expected Bill to take over when the old man retired. Instead, politics beckoned.

Mr. Davis was something of a political prodigy in an era when greying temples were considered an asset. He attended his first national Progressive Conservative convention at the age of 15; at 29, he became the youngest MPP in the legislature when he was elected to represent Peel riding in 1959.

He took over from the retiring Thomas L. Kennedy, who held the seat for almost 40 years and was content to pass the torch to a youngster whom he saw as a future king. Mr. Kennedy had been premier for a nine-month period after George Drew’s reign (1943 to 1948) and before Leslie Frost (1949-1961).

Mr. Davis was in the legislature to witness the last political years of “the great tranquillizer,” as Mr. Frost had been nicknamed and with whom Mr. Davis would later be compared.

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Mr. Davis shown with his first wife, Helen, in December, 1958, when he was the PC candidate in Peel.Handout

When John Robarts became the new leader and premier, he quickly spotted the new member from Peel, who had worked as campaign chairman for Mr. Robarts’s major opponent, Robert Macaulay, the minister of energy in Mr. Frost’s cabinet.

Brampton Billy cut a swath through the legislature, with his thatch of brown hair framing his round, genial face. His rise was meteoric, his manner at once distinguished and non-threatening. He was greatly admired for his engaging smile, modesty and ability to work hard.

Tories and opponents described him as a nice guy, a decent man, the ideal Ontario male. He looked sturdy and strong; his tough physique was attributed to his often-mentioned love of football and afforded him enormous stamina for 16-hour days and endless speaking engagements throughout the province.

Mr. Davis grew up rapidly, in political terms, while coping with personal tragedy: in 1962 when he was only 32, with four children aged one, three, five and six, his wife Helen died of cancer.

Seven months later he was named education minister. He wasted no time becoming one of the most aggressive and expansionist ministers of education in Ontario history – as well as the youngest – and, a year after his wife’s death, remarried.

Kathleen Mackay, his second wife, was an American kindergarten teacher who knew Mr. Davis from vacationing with her family at Georgian Bay, where he had a cottage. She took over raising the Davis brood and together they had one child.

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Kathleen Davis holds her husband's arm on election day in 1975.Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail

Although Mr. Davis publicly worried about not spending enough time with his growing family, his workaholic style did not diminish. During his tenure as education minister, lasting from 1962 to 1971, he honed the subtle skills of an artful politician. He swam quietly through the potentially troubled waters of curriculum review and school-board amalgamation, showing an interest in technological education long before it was popular and expanding by hundreds of millions of dollars the amount of money spent on his portfolio.

“The best kept secret in Ontario,” according to the Varsity, University of Toronto’s student newspaper, “is that Bill Davis is a rebel.” Published in the late-sixties, at the height of student activism, the article noted that the education minister was hated by “professional dissidents for the mere fact of his establishment status. … But he is a real reformer. We all want revolution, but why knock reform?”

Mr. Davis gave it to them in the form of the Hall-Dennis Report, a radical overhaul of the public school system that knocked down walls, gave students more choice and generally opened up the system to the influence of counterculture activists. Many of the changes were to be lamented, and revised, two decades later, but there was no question of Mr. Davis’s commitment to education.

His major legacies were the enormous expansion of Ontario universities and the creation of an extensive community-college system to accommodate the baby-boom generation; postsecondary education has since assumed even greater significance in an era of high unemployment dominated by the demand for specialized skills training.

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Jan. 17, 1971: Davis supporters attend the kickoff rally of his leadership campaign at the Clarkson Community Centre in Mississauga.Dennis Robinson/The Globe and Mail

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Feb. 12, 1971: Mr. Davis acknowledges the crowd at the party convention.The Globe and Mail

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Daughter Meg holds a 'vote for Daddy' sign at the leadership convention, where Mr. Davis won by a razor-thin margin.Dennis Robinson/The Globe and Mail

In 1971, Premier Robarts retired and William Davis, the self-confident heir apparent, almost lost the Tory leadership in a shockingly close race.

His 44-vote margin of victory was a testimony to the skills of Norman Atkins, an advertising executive and campaign manager for Allan Lawrence, Mr. Davis’s leadership rival. Demonstrating his ability to absorb people and ideas from all sides, Mr. Davis asked Mr. Atkins to join the fledging premier’s team. Their alliance was a historic one, giving birth to the Big Blue Machine. Together they maintained power for another 13 years, one of the most successful political machines in the Western world.

“The longest surviving one-party state this side of Albania,” was columnist Allan Fotheringham’s description of Ontario under a premier noted increasingly for his ability to prevaricate, obfuscate and generally straddle the middle of a road obscured by the fog of his meandering statements.

William Davis’s long-time political aide, Clare Westcott, once gave his boss a desk-ruler inscribed: “Maybe… and that’s final.” He drove opposition politicians to distraction with his refusal to be pinned down on issues, with his increasing predilection for polling the electorate on every conceivable subject, and his knack for remaining a popular figure.

He never lost an election, leading the Tories through four campaigns: 1971, his first as leader, masterminded by Mr. Atkins, produced a majority of 74 seats in the 125-seat legislature. Four years later Mr. Davis was in trouble: in the 1975 election, the Tories lost 23 seats. The popular vote broke down to 36 cent for the Tories, 34 per cent for the Liberals, and 29 per cent for the NDP.

Held to another minority government in 1977, Mr. Davis worked to change his image. Described as too remote and too right-wing, or, simultaneously, too left-wing, he worked to become more accessible, more relaxed, and gave up direction of the party’s policy committee to Darcy McKeough.

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April 11, 1976: Mr. Davis tries his hand at a drum aided by Lorraine Heise, 16, a player in the York Lions steel band.John McNeill/The Globe and Mail

The leavening of William Davis apparently met with the public’s approval. The 1981 election, built on a $1.5-billion commitment to industrial strategy in the guise of BILD (Board of Industrial Leadership and Development), resulted in a majority of 70 seats. And heading into 1984, a poll commissioned by the party showed that 60 per cent of Ontarians were satisfied with their government. Mr. Davis appeared to have laid to rest the Tory doctrine of renewal via leadership change approximately every 10 years.

Mr. Davis’s feelings about leadership came under intense scrutiny in the early 1980s. In the buildup to the national Tory leadership race in 1983, eventually won by Mr. Mulroney, Mr. Davis was strongly encouraged to run by many close advisers.

He acknowledged publicly that he was considering making a move to the federal arena, but he agonized for months and finally decided not to go – on the grounds, he said, that his bid for the leadership would be potentially “too divisive.” He feared exacerbating regional, East-West tensions and it was reported that if he ran, Western Tories – primarily Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed – would do everything in their power to stop him.

“You have to appear undisturbed by criticism and the crisis of the moment,” he once said, defending his apparent equanimity. “You always have to create the impression that everything is totally under control.”

According to friends, he was terribly disturbed by the suicide of his mentor, former premier John Robarts, in 1982. After his retirement in 1971, Mr. Robarts had returned to practice law but had subsequently suffered a stroke that left him impaired.

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Oct. 20, 1982: Mr. Davis attends the funeral of his mentor, John Robarts.John McNeill/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Davis was also upset by a series of scandals that threatened the government’s cherished appearance of stability and incorruptibility. Former Davis cabinet ministers, including Dalton Bales and Darcy McKeough, were caught in compromising business transactions. There were the corporate collapses that threatened Ontario citizens’ investments, including Astra, Re-mor and C & M Financial Consultants; and later the Greymac Affair, a controversy surrounding the sale of more than 10,000 apartment units that threw a trust company into jeopardy and alarmed the entire financial community for months.

But Mr. Davis survived the scandals and the inevitable problems of government by “never setting himself above other people,” according to his long-time friend and colleague, Edward Stewart. Deputy minister to Mr. Davis when he was education minister, secretary to cabinet when Mr. Davis was premier, Mr. Stewart analyzed Mr. Davis’s character in office as “a reflection of the approach he decided to take as a public figure.”

In 1984, as his boss pondered whether to lead his party through the next election, Mr. Stewart described the premier as a man who carefully calculated the impact of his image on the public. “Mr. Davis does not want to be seen as someone who’s caught up in his own ability, whose ego is overblown,” Mr. Stewart said.

“When he makes statements about himself, he tends to be self-deprecating. He’s obviously very intelligent – look at his success, from the education ministry to the premier’s office – but he’s basically humble. He doesn’t get too carried away with his own omnipotence.”

With a report from The Canadian Press

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Oct. 19, 1989: Mr. Davis holds three-year-old granddaughter Kathleen as she points to his official portrait unveiled at Queen's Park.James Lewcun/The Globe and Mail

Editor’s note: Mr. Davis resigned in 1985, not 1984, as was stated in an earlier version of this obituary.

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