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Great-grandfather, gardener, friend, fighter. Born on March 16, 1924, in Cosenza, Italy; died on Jan. 24, 2014, in Toronto, of a stroke after surgery, aged 89.

Ugo Iannuzzi was a survivor. Stubborn, feisty and independent to the bone, he lived nine decades of journeys big and small. And with every new challenge – poverty, grief, pain – he proved himself a man of purpose and principles.

Born in the mountains of Calabria in southern Italy, Ugo was 6 when his father, Francesco, moved to Argentina, never to return. His mother, Serafina, was left alone to raise their three sons and a daughter. Ugo worked to help support his family, bearing the emotional scars from this loss his whole life.

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By the age of 20, he had survived the Depression and served with the Italian Army in Italy during the Second World War. In 1945, he married Luisa Cristiano. They started their life together with little in the way of possessions, but rich in the embrace of family.

In December, 1958, they sailed to Canada, the land of opportunity, to build a better life for their son, Frank, and daughters, Pina and Ada. The family arrived in Toronto in winter, where among their many adjustments was living with that much snow.

Ugo worked hard in construction and other odd jobs and slowly they established a new life, complete with a tidy home in a leafy suburb.

Family came first, and every holiday and special occasion meant boisterous parties where the food and drinks flowed freely. Ugo had left his relatives behind when he emigrated, so he welcomed the arrival of six grandchildren – and once several of his grandkids married, never hesitated to inquire when they planned to start their own families. He loved to brag about his four cherished great-grandchildren.

Summers were spent on vacation by the sea in Italy, he and Luisa returning with faces tanned and luggage laden with wheels of cheese and fresh figs. Their garden was a mini-farm by backyard standards, a tangle of vegetables, herbs and fruit trees growing down a steep slope. Late in life, Ugo scaled back, abandoning the slope to garden only on level land.

His shed was always stocked with seedlings, his counter with ripening vegetables and his freezer with the overflow. His family members inherited his green thumb, and he would regularly stop by their homes on his frequent drives around the neighbourhood to perform a garden inspection.

Ugo was quick to tell you if he disapproved of something you'd done – planted peppers in the wrong spot, spent too much on a home renovation, were too permissive with your children – but secretly he glowed in his family's accomplishments.

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He loved telling stories from his life and could debate, loudly, some point or other for hours. Having been one himself, he always rooted for the underdog, and deeply appreciated Pope Francis's message of service to the poor.

When Luisa died of cancer at age 65, Ugo again proved his survival skills, developing a vast network of friendships and taking pride in his self-sufficiency. In the winters he travelled, swimming in a pool in Cuba on a trip last year with his son.

Racked with aches and pains from arthritis in his later years, he persisted until his doctor agreed to perform surgery on his wrist. The day before the operation, Ugo went out for groceries. At the hospital, he charmed his nurses and doctors, inviting them to his upcoming 90th birthday party.

The next day he was gone, leaving a shockingly huge hole in all our hearts.

Lori Fazari is Ugo's granddaughter.

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