For Joseph Segal, life was like travelling along the tarmac of a runway – sometimes the ride was white-knuckled, but it always had purpose. A high-school dropout turned soldier, business titan and philanthropist, Mr. Segal did not like the idea of reaching cruise altitude because that would mean relaxing into the status quo, with no more room for improvement.
“He believed you have a beginning on the runway, and you have an end. And you have to say to yourself that what you do with your time on it is significant,” said his longtime friend, Peter Legge, who first met Mr. Segal when he was an advertising salesperson for a Vancouver radio station.
“I was instructed to do my homework, or he would eat me alive,” Mr. Legge continued. “We hit it off, although I didn’t make the sale. Over 50 years, over many breakfasts, lunches and dinners, he never spent one penny on advertising with me. All I wanted was his friendship and wisdom.”
Retirement was not a word in the vocabulary of Mr. Segal, an Order of Canada and Order of British Columbia recipient. There were always too many projects to oversee, people to meet and charities to give to. True to form, despite being bedridden with a fever, he worked until the day before he died in the early hours of May 31 at his home in Vancouver. He was 97 years old, an indomitable survivor of war, of cancer, a stroke and a broken neck who still believed he could live past 100, and had everyone around him believing so, too.
“We always said Dad had nine lives, like a cat,” said one of his two sons, Gary.
Mr. Segal, who went by plain old “Joe,” did not dwell much on his past, including growing up poor in Alberta, or his military service during the Second World War – when he was part of the Calgary Highlander division that helped to liberate the Netherlands.
Only in his eighties did he begin to reminisce about what he had experienced in the wartime trenches, which included the loss of comrades-in-arms, and being caught in the crossfire between Allied troops and Germans, trying to run through a furrowed field toward a farmhouse that had been taken over by the Wehrmacht. It was surrounded by a barbed-wire fence and as he burrowed under the fence, his helmet caught.
“I could feel the bullet come by so close, it burned. That was the only time I said, ‘God, get me the hell out of here,’ ” Mr. Segal recalled in a video interview to mark the opening of the Juno Beach Centre, a museum in Normandy, France, which highlights Canada’s role in the war.
“When you’re 18, you don’t know too much, [but] one thing I learned from my wartime experience was the importance of togetherness.”
He would remember that lesson over and again, as he started an army-surplus business that grew into a department-store empire, then shifted into property development. A straight-talking billionaire, he always supported people in the best way he knew how, no matter if it was giving new pairs of shoes to homeless people, or donating, with his wife, Rosalie, $12-million to create a new mental-health pavilion at Vancouver General Hospital.
“Can you imagine being alone and without anyone to turn to? Loneliness is the most difficult thing in the world,” he once told the Vancouver Sun. “Twenty-five per cent of the population walking the streets around the world have a mental health problem of one type or another. There is a stigma. When you have cancer or a heart problem, there is lots of support. When you have mental health problems, you walk alone.”
Mr. Segal was born on January 12, 1925, in Vegreville, a small town about 100 kilometres east of Edmonton, the third of Samuel and Sophie Segal’s four children. His parents had emigrated from Russia by way of Palestine. His father was a shopkeeper and a jack of all trades who became a painter before dying prematurely of a heart attack. His mother, tough and realistic, was left to raise the children on her own.
At the time, young Joe was in Grade 10, a teen who loved to read but quit school to help support the family. His first employer was a shopkeeper, who had him sweeping floors. Then, he sold frozen whitefish door-to-door. Finally, he left Vegreville to work on the construction of the Alaska Highway, a job that saw him living in a bush camp, with little to do save play a little poker at night and send good money back home.
At 18, while visiting Calgary and flush with about $3,000 of earnings, he met a cab driver who convinced him to join a poker game. Hours later, he was broke. When he called his mother to say he could not even pay for his hotel, she was having none of it.
“You’ve made your bed, now lie in it,” she said.
When his older sister arrived to bail him out, he cast about for his next job. After an aborted attempt to join the navy – he discovered it would take 30 days to process his papers – he signed up for the army instead, undergoing basic training in Canada before shipping out, first to England, then to The Netherlands and, for the final year of the war, Germany.
Upon his return to Canada at the age of 21, he went to Vancouver to visit relatives and met the teen who would become his wife, as she came off a ferry from Vancouver Island. He was smitten with Rosalie Wosk from the start, undeterred by her parents’ opposition to him courting their daughter because they feared that despite his ambition and bravado, he would amount to nothing. Eventually, inexorably, the young couple overcame the parents’ fears and married in 1948, the beginning of a partnership that would last nearly 74 years.
Mr. Segal soon began to prove his in-laws’ fears wrong, parlaying the army surplus business that began with cans of olive-green paint and oscillating fans into a discount department store he called Fields. Then, he took over the now-defunct Zellers retail chain (one of his more white-knuckled endeavours because he was involved in a bidding war with a much wealthier multinational corporation based in the U.S.), transforming it from a foundering loser unsure of its market into a burgeoning business worth more than $800-million. His son said he managed this feat by taking off the chain’s “Saran wrap” to let it breathe.
In 1979, he sold Zellers to the Hudson’s Bay Company, where he became a major shareholder and director. That same year, he founded Kingswood Capital Corporation, a property and venture-capital firm with offices in the Pacific Centre tower in the heart of downtown Vancouver. Each day at lunch, he rode the elevator down to a restaurant in the now-closed Four Seasons Hotel, where he held court with guests who ranged the gamut, from business and religious leaders to academics, journalists and those who simply needed someone to listen.
“These were the lessons I learned from him: to be honest and have integrity, to do what you say you will do, listen as closely as you can and always follow up,” said Mr. Legge, who wrote a book published in 2013 called Lunch with Joe, a compilation of interviews with more than 90 of his friend’s lunch companions. “Of course, and to always give the very best answer that you can.”
Mr. Segal’s community work was legendary and diverse, with contributions to the B.C. Children’s Hospital, the Variety Club, United Way, the Children’s Charity and the Vancouver Police Foundation, among others. He served six years as chancellor of Simon Fraser University, and helped countless individuals with loans both small and large that were not always paid back.
In 1992, he received the Order of British Columbia. Two years later, he was named to the Order of Canada, and was also granted his own coat of arms, the motto for which was Strength and Decisiveness with Compassion. And in 1998, author Peter. C. Newman, writing about B.C. business leaders in Titans: How the New Canadian Establishment Seized Power, wrote: “If the local titans ever held a popularity contest, Joe Segal would win, hands down.”
At his funeral, the Vancouver Police Department provided an honour guard to escort his coffin out to the gravesite, a final tribute to a man who never forgot where he came from, gave back to the community and had people’s best interests at heart.
He leaves his wife, Rosalie; sons, Lorne and Gary Segal; daughters, Sandra Miller and Tracey Schonfeld; 10 grandchildren; and 18 great-grandchildren.