Skip to main content

Handout file photo of former Calgary Flames owner Daryl "Doc" Seaman. Mr. Seaman’s estate has just made a huge charitable donation, one of the larger in Canadian history.

The money has been quietly trickling in for a few years, discreetly accumulating at the behest of a larger-than-life character who asked that the magnitude of his generosity remain private upon his death.

But on Wednesday, the Calgary Foundation announced Daryl "Doc" Seaman's $117-million donation – believed to be the largest gift to a community fund and the second-largest cash donation in Canadian history.

"We've always been proud of what Doc accomplished," his younger brother, Don, said ahead of the announcement, "but it's good to know that other people will really understand his feelings for the city."

The donation was honoured at a Calgary luncheon, where Mayor Naheed Nenshi and former Dragon's Den investor and well-known Canadian philanthropist Brett Wilson addressed upward of 570 paying guests.

"Western Canada is fortunate to have Doc Seaman's footprints all over it," Mr. Wilson, who viewed Mr. Seaman as a mentor, said in a statement released before the luncheon. "His leadership in business and community has forever changed our landscape."

Mr. Seaman, who earned his nickname in the 1940s by carrying baseball gear in a black Gladstone bag resembling a doctor's kit, has long been revered by Calgarians as the man who brought the NHL and the Olympics to the Alberta city. Upon his passing at the age of 86 on Jan. 11, 2009, he has been widely remembered as an iconic, down-to-earth oilman with a personal stake in Calgary's future and its civic identity.

Mr. Seaman's penchant for giving, his brother said, stems back to his roots in Rouleau, Saskatchewan, where during the Great Depression the family relied on carloads of vegetables and cod shipped from wealthier folk in the east. After serving as a Royal Canadian Air Force pilot during the Second World War, Mr. Seaman settled in Calgary in 1949 and soon after founded an international oil and gas company.

His wealth, foundation head Eva Friesen said, never seemed to define him, instead rendering him revered by those who knew first-hand of his oftentimes private generosity. Ms. Friesen, who first collaborated with Mr. Seaman about a decade ago when she was working for the Calgary Health Trust, said the Hockey Hall of Fame inductee was "unassuming," in life preferring to give anonymously.

Why, then, did the foundation and the family decide to go public Wednesday with Mr. Seaman's unprecedented donation?

"Slowly, over the years, people have made the judgment that Doc would be okay with the recognition because it might inspire others to do the same," Ms. Friesen said. "It's a big statement from Doc that he cared about the community and believed in what the sector was doing. This is a great show of confidence."

His brother, more frank, put it this way: "I think Doc would say he's not happy about it being publicized, but inwardly he'd be pleased by the interest shown and the prospect that others might join in."

Before he died of prostate cancer, Mr. Seaman settled his inheritance with the family and decided that nearly all of his estate would go toward the Calgary Foundation's community fund – only a few "dribs and drabs" would go elsewhere, his brother said.

Given that Mr. Seaman's wealth was wrapped up in several ranches, an oil company, land development projects and a stock portfolio, it has taken a few years for the foundation to accumulate the $117-million donation. In fact, the gift will grow as more and more assets are liquidated, Ms. Friesen said.

Although the grand total is unknown, it may be possible that the gift will surpass the largest-known cash donation in Canadian history – a $200-million donation from the Fondation Lucie and André Changnon to Investir pour l'avenir six years ago to help tackle obesity.

"We'll have a final number to announce, possibly in three more years," Ms. Friesen said. "But we didn't want to wait that long to honour him."

The money, which has been funnelling from Mr. Seaman's estate since 2010, brings the foundation's total endowment to over $600-million, but it doubles its community fund that makes grants to charities at the behest of the organization – not at the explicit direction of the donor.

As Ms. Friesen put it, Mr. Seaman opted, almost exclusively, against "giving from the grave." (Less than a tenth of the gift was specifically earmarked for a hockey fund).

"He liked to make gifts and then just free people to do with it what they could," Ms. Friesen said of his donations, which, for example, helped finance the world's first MRI-compatible surgical robot and a $500,000 University of Calgary athletic scholarship fund.

The Daryl K. Seaman Foundation Fund will support charities addressing "critical needs" such as mental health, aboriginal education, poverty and environmental sustainability, Ms. Friesen said. Indeed, save for the $10-million hockey fund, Mr. Seaman relinquished control of the funds to the grant committee. Ms. Friesen called the endowment a "gift that keeps on giving," and pointed out that over the course of 100 years, the $117-million donation will have granted $1.4-billion.

"He cared," Mr. Seaman's brother said simply. "He loved Calgary and thought this was a good way to help."

Interact with The Globe