Jack Litvack: Executive. Raconteur. Film buff. Mensch. Born April 6, 1934, in Winnipeg; died Oct. 13, 2019, in Winnipeg, from complications of Parkinson’s and dementia; aged 85.
At his retirement party in 1996, Jack Litvack’s speech began with his favourite line from Sam Levenson: “Remember, if you ever need a helping hand, you’ll find one at the end of your arm.” The quote spoke as much to his love of classic humourists as it did to the determination and self-reliance that would take him from his humble beginnings to become president of Winnipeg’s St. Boniface Hospital.
Jack was the son of Jewish immigrants from prewar Europe who settled in North End Winnipeg, living in a small apartment that shared a wall with a busy delicatessen. Though his family had little, his parents and grandmother encouraged him to reach heights they never could.
Jack began his career as a pharmacist, graduating from University of Manitoba in 1957. An early job was at Orlikow’s Pharmacy, a popular hangout on Winnipeg’s Main Street. Here, a co-worker introduced him to Rochelle Weidman. While Jack was focused and decisive in his career, on personal issues decisions came far slower. Rochelle waited impatiently for three years for a proposal. They married in 1963 and spent the first few years travelling, camping and enjoying Winnipeg’s symphony and ballet. Two boys, David and Daniel, came along a few years later.
Jack was kind, funny, an incredible storyteller and a fan of classic comedy films. Once, when Rochelle was away, rather than getting the boys to bed on time, he took them to a Mel Brooks movie festival.
Jack had spontaneous moments – such as the time he left for a short walk and returned with an expensive stereo he saw in the window at Eaton’s – but he could also be set in his ways. Jack and Rochelle lived in their “starter home” for more than 40 years and spent 35 summers at the Gimli trailer park, north of the city. Though not outwardly emotional, Jack was a warm and caring family man, something his grandchildren, Eden and Ryan, would enjoy later in his life.
In 1967, Jack was hired to run the pharmacy department at St. Boniface Hospital, founded by the Grey Nuns. After a few weeks on the job, the head Sister noted that Jack “was not of their faith.” She wanted him to know that his faith was unimportant – Jack could go as far as his talents would take him. Jack would spend 30 years at St. Boniface and his talents would eventually take him to the hospital’s top position – president and chief executive officer.
He was proud of his role in developing St. Boniface’s Research Foundation, and its international award meant he met people such as Jonas Salk, Mother Theresa, Prince Charles and Pope John Paul II.
Jack was quite clever and had an understated leadership style. When an important drug was held up in customs, Jack simply asked the overly bureaucratic customs officer how to spell his name. When asked why, Jack explained that hospital patients would suffer and the press would ask questions. Jack wanted to be sure to provide the correct spelling of the officer’s name. The drug was released the next morning.
Jack was an active member of Winnipeg’s Jewish community and its unofficial liaison at the hospital: He once had to talk a rabbi out of blowing a shofar (rams horn) in the intensive care unit. Jack also volunteered on many committees and boards, including Variety Club of Manitoba and the St. Amant centre.
When Parkinson’s disease and dementia took hold, Jack could remain home thanks to Rochelle and David’s incredible efforts and advocacy. Sadly, palliative care would not be at his beloved St. Boniface but – as if the universe was trying make things right – his final physician would be the grandson of the owner of Orlikow Pharmacy, where Jack and Rochelle started their story together some 60 years earlier.
Dan Litvack is Jack’s son.
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