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Former Ontario Progressive Conservative party leader John Tory, left, watched his father John Tory Sr. cast his ballot in the 2007 Ontario provincial electionMIKE CASSESE/Reuters

Newsrooms feed on rumour and skepticism, but even the most jaundiced journalists mellowed last September when the Thomson family bought back a majority interest in The Globe and Mail and trooped into a crowded meeting room to make the announcement. Along with David Thomson, the current chair of the global company, his mother Marilyn, and Geoff Beattie, the president of Woodbridge, the family holding company, there was a slight man with wispy hair and rimless spectacles. John A. Tory had officially retired a dozen years earlier as president of Woodbridge and deputy chair of Thomson, but his pivotal role in the organization demanded his presence at this triumphant moment. "It was a dream," David Thomson said this week of the purchase.

In the days since John Tory died in Florida on April 2, 2011, following a stroke at age 81, pundits and reporters have been trying to assess the specific nature of his role in the Thomson empire. It began as long ago as 1955, when he first acted for Roy Thomson as a young lawyer in his own father's practice. Back then Thomson, a canny but cash-strapped entrepreneur, was struggling to come up with $1.5-million to buy The Sudbury Star newspaper. Today the family's wealth has grown to about $20-billion.

Tory's involvement accelerated in the late 1960s when Roy Thomson made a twofold appeal – help me grow the business and work with the next generation to provide my son with the same wise counsel you are giving me. Over the years, the two men, one of whom was old enough to be the father of the other, forged a kinship stronger than genetics. Tory worked even longer with Roy's son Ken Thomson, and developed an equally strong if different bond with him. He provided strategic support and guidance through the buying and shedding of North American assets, the honing of the gushing reserves from North Sea oil and the shaping of the nimble and focused information giant that the Thomson empire embodies today under David Thomson.

Ask six people to define Tory's role with the three generations of owners, over the past five decades, and you will receive as many answers: adviser, manager, strategist, confidante, tactician, mentor. David Thomson summed it up cogently: "He was the conscience of the company. I marvel that I was blessed to have the continuity and the alignment with someone so gifted and yet somebody I could share my lineage with."

As a child of seven or eight in the mid-60s, Thomson remembers Tory "always being with his grandfather." After Roy Thomson died suddenly of a stroke in 1976, Tory began working every day with Ken Thomson. They were more of an age, and they established a rapport, which David Thomson compares to the scoring duo of Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri on the Edmonton Oilers in the 1980s. The two men were both early risers so they would meet in the office and debate issues and ideas before the rest of the executives arrived.

Although short of stature, Tory was big of heart and huge of intellect. As discreet as he was sharp, as modest as he was learned, he never pushed a personal agenda or ambition in weighing options or solutions. Still, he had his foibles: He was a picky eater and he swallowed more than a dozen health food potions and vitamins every morning.

He loved his family, playing golf and working – even now there are stacks of papers in his office at Woodbridge dealing with the minutiae of tax law or corporate bylaws – and he often did both at the same time, covering documents with pencilled notations in his crabbed handwriting as he relaxed in an armchair surrounded by his wife and four children. "He liked to read his briefcase at night, while I liked to read books," his twin brother James (Jim) Tory pointed out this week.

The two Torys had marched in lockstep from the moment they first drew breath, until John Tory left Tory, Tory Deslauriers and Binnington (now Torys LLP) when he was 43 and a joint senior partner with his brother. One of the first lawyers in Toronto to make the transition from practising corporate law to an active role in running a corporation, his reasons for leaving the firm that bore his name were complicated. He loved being a lawyer, but he loved his brother more. By embracing the adventure of working with Roy Thomson, he ensured that Torys would retain the Thomsons' legal business, and he obviated any professional jostling with his twin.

Over the years the two brothers talked about John's decision and concluded that it was "probably the best thing for our lives and our careers," said Jim Tory. "My brother and I never exchanged an angry word or even had a serious difference of opinion in 81 years. We had a lovely, open relationship."

At the time, though, John's departure was hard: "He ran the firm; I liked to dabble and do my legal stuff, but I had no interest in the business side of the law firm." After his brother stepped aside, Jim Tory, as self-effacing as they come, achieved a huge success, building Torys LLP into one of the leading legal firms in the country.

John Tory didn't walk away with any animosity or any clients, but he did take loyalties and obligations. From the mid-1960s, he had sat on the board of Ted Rogers's neophyte communications company and he had also acted as one of six trustees of Joseph Atkinson Jr.'s estate, which controls one-third of the voting shares of Torstar. As time passed, Tory became an adviser to the owners of The Toronto Star while holding a key executive position with the owners of The Globe. The possibility for conflict was enormous; that none ever materialized was a measure of Tory's integrity and the respect he was accorded by others.

"One of his real geniuses was understanding the complexities, the nuances and, quite frankly, the manner in which the relationship should work between owners and senior managers," said John Honderich, former publisher of The Toronto Star and Chair of Torstar.

When it came to succession planning, Tory followed his own advice. As long ago as the late 1980s, he had tapped a young lawyer from Torys named Geoffrey (Geoff) Beattie to work with him at Woodbridge. Beattie had practised law under his brother Jim, acquired business experience from a three-year stint at the investment banker Wood Gundy, and was both "very intelligent" and equipped with the essential "people skills." But the decision to hire him at Woodbridge in 1990 was only made after Beattie had met many times with Ken's sons, David and Peter. Eight years later, Tory retired, Beattie became President of Woodbridge and Deputy Chair of the Thomson companies, and the two men eased into a supportive relationship in which, as Tory himself said, "I don't offer advice; I give it, if asked." His wife Liz was more explicit: "John loved him; he was like our fifth child."

Those feelings were reciprocated. As Beattie said at the funeral yesterday: "He was very special. Not only did he make everyone feel better about themselves, he made you feel that you were just like him and therefore you could be successful at anything (or, in his case, everything)."

A family dynasty begins

The Torys settled in Nova Scotia in the 1780s. James Tory, a soldier in the 71st Scottish Regiment, was captured and held as a prisoner of war during the American Revolution. After the fighting stopped and the negotiations were concluded, the British gave him a grant of land near Guysboro on the western shore of Chedabucto Bay. That's where his three grandsons, James Cranwick, Henry Marshall and John A. Tory were born in the 1860s.

James was a businessman and politician who served as Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia from 1925-30; Henry, an educator, was the founding head of the University of Alberta, Khaki College and Carleton University; and John, the youngest of the three, was a company director who ended up in Toronto as head of the Ontario division of Sun Life Assurance Company.

His son, John S. D. Tory, was a hard-driving, hard-living and brilliant lawyer. He and his wife Jean (née Arnold) Tory, an energetic and effective volunteer, had three children: a daughter Virginia (now Denton) and fraternal twins, John Arnold Tory and James Marshall Tory, who were born on March 7, 1930. (The Torys separated when their children were in their twenties.)

As their father had done before them, the boys went to University of Toronto Schools, an academically elite private boy's school. After graduating in 1946, when they were barely 16, he sent them to Phillips Exeter Academy in Andover, Mass., for a year of maturing before they joined the floods of returning veterans at the University of Toronto. In those days you could study law in the upper years of an undergraduate degree followed by a year at Osgoode Hall.

The only woman in their year at the U of T was Anna Bacon, who, despite her feminist attitudes, was appointed class social convener. She persuaded John Tory to attend a dance with her younger sister Elizabeth (Liz), a nurse. She was 19 and he was 20; a year later they married, on May 15, 1953. By 1961, they had four children, John, Jennifer, Jeffrey and Michael. While her husband practised law, Liz Tory followed her mother-in-law's example and became seriously involved in fundraising and volunteer activity. She was the one who first sat on the board of Sunnybrook, their neighbourhood hospital, for example.

After they were called to the bar, the boys joined J.S.D. Tory and Associates, the corporate law firm their father had formed in 1941. Two of their classmates, Arthur Binnington and William Des Lauriers, joined in the next couple of years. By the time J.S.D. Tory died in 1965, the firm had evolved into a real partnership under the name Tory, Tory Des Lauriers and Binnington.

Besides Roy Thomson, another figure who would become a significant player in Canadian business – Ted Rogers – had approached J.S.D. Tory in the late 1950s. At the time, Tory thought the brash young man wanted him to invest in a radio license, Instead, Rogers, who by his own admission had almost flunked out of Osgoode Hall Law School, was seeking an articling position. As with Thomson, J.S.D. Tory sent Rogers to see his son John, who took him on, and assigned him to work under his brother Jim. He wasn't impressed with Rogers's diligence. "I finally signed his articles but only on the condition that he never practised law," Tory said. And he didn't.

Instead, Rogers went into the communications business and asked John Tory to sit on the board of his fledgling company in 1964. "Why would you want to sit on the board of that crappy little company?" Liz Tory asked her husband, a story that Rogers delighted in retelling. "He formed a fast bond with anybody who worked with him, on anything," John H. Tory, CEO of Rogers Cable from 1999-2003 and former leader of the Conservative Party in Ontario, said of his father. "On Ted Rogers's darkest days – and there were quite a few when things looked sort of bleak – that was when my dad would redouble his efforts to help Ted find a solution to his problems."

Rogers didn't always heed Tory's advice, but he trusted and respected him. Just months before he died, he found a way to honour Tory, a man who had never lusted after trappings or gongs. Rogers and his wife Loretta secretly gave Tory a gift he couldn't refuse: a $7.5- million dollar donation to one of his favourite charities, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.

"I have never heard of that in all my years in volunteer work, of someone giving a gift that significant and naming it for somebody that wasn't related to them," said Jennifer (Jen) Tory, an executive with Royal Bank of Canada and the chair of Sunnybrook's current capital campaign. "But that speaks a lot about the quiet humble person [my father]was that somebody would want to do that. He was so calm and so thoughtful, and you always knew that whatever advice he was giving you, it was coming from a good set of values and a moral centre," she said of the man who called her every morning on her way to work just to say hello.

Despite prostate cancer in 1991, Tory was remarkably healthy until he suffered a sudden stroke very early in the morning a week ago while on holiday with his wife in Florida. His children rushed to his side and were all with him when he died on Saturday.

John A. Tory is survived by his wife Liz, four children, 15 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

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