Skip to main content
lives lived

Alessandro “Alex” Messina: Refugee. Olympian. Family man. Vivacious. Born Aug. 30, 1941, in Fiume, Italy; died Aug. 20, 2022, in Markham, Ont., of cancer; aged 80.

Alex Messina.Courtesy of family

Alex was born into a world at war, the second child of Lea and Nino Messina. He remembers carrying home-baked bread to a nearby Allied prisoner-of-war camp with his mother. In exchange, he was sometimes given a square of chocolate from the Red Cross POW care package, a real treat for young Alex.

After Alex’s father died of tuberculosis and Yugoslavia’s postwar annexation of Fiume left them stateless, Lea took her two children to Venice. During the next four years, the family endured a hardscrabble existence that included two years in Displaced Person camps in Italy. During that time, Alex’s most precious possessions were a tin cup and a pocketknife.

Lea was tenacious and wanted the best for her children, and that meant a new life in Canada. After years of applications, the family arrived at Pier 21 in Halifax in October 1951. They were assigned to a DP camp near Toronto. Alex was grateful for a warm bed, new shoes and a full belly.

The Messinas settled in Windsor, Ont., and endured grinding poverty, alienation, discrimination and the stigma of being displaced persons for several years. After struggling to fit in at school, Alex dropped out at age 13 and worked as a bicycle delivery boy. A chance encounter with a cycling enthusiast introduced him to the world of road cycling. His life changed the first time he sat on a racing bike – it was a perfect fit – and Alex finally felt as if he belonged. Soon he was winning races. He also caught a break when a family friend got him a job as an apprentice draftsman at a large Toronto company. He flourished at work and on the racing circuit, and in 1960, he won the Canadian Road Amateur Championship and a place on the Canadian Olympic cycling team for the 17th Olympic games in Rome. He was just 19.

After the Olympics, Alex focused on his work and became a well-known mechanical designer. One day in 1966, he spotted a beautiful young woman outside his Toronto home. Smitten, he engineered a meeting and asked her for a date. “No, you can’t,” Marie Maiola replied. “I am Italian, and I cannot date unless you first speak with my father.” Undeterred, Alex won over Marie’s family, and soon they were in love. A year later they married, and in 1971 they welcomed their first child, Steve. Four years later Brian arrived. Alex liked to say that “two of the best days of my life were the first days of my sons’.”

His career prospered, working on prestigious projects including Toronto’s CN Tower and City Hall. Eventually, he formed his own company, AVAM. He enjoyed it so much that he joked, “I am embarrassed to be paid for my work.”

But the trauma of Alex’s childhood never left him. Nothing was taken for granted. He loved and treasured Marie endlessly, crediting her for all the happiness in his life. He never missed an opportunity to show his sons his affection even as they grew into men, saying “the only regret I have in life is not having more kids.”

In 2005, he became a grandfather and the role suited him perfectly. “Who loves ya? Grandpa does!” was something Andrew and Matthew heard often. The family also listened to Alex’s endless supply of facts, as he frequently “educated” them with all he knew. Alex also wasted nothing. Given his difficult start in life, he repaired just about everything and never saw a need to buy something new.

In 2021, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He died with his family by his side, but they treasure a book he completed a few months earlier. He wrote about his life, titling it: No Complaints, Just the Facts.

Alex was a proud Canadian, deeply grateful for the opportunities afforded him. He was fond of saying, “I’m Canadian – I was born in Italy by mistake!”

Joanne Messina is Alex’s daughter-in-law.

To submit a Lives Lived: lives@globeandmail.com

Lives Lived celebrates the everyday, extraordinary, unheralded lives of Canadians who have recently passed. To learn how to share the story of a family member or friend, go online to tgam.ca/livesguide