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Nicolas Mateesco Matte

Courtesy of the Family

Nicolas Mateesco Matte fled the Communists during the Second World War and came to Canada, where he was a pioneer in air and space law, using his vision of international co-operation to build bridges among unlikely allies.

But it's impossible to speak about Dr. Matte without mentioning his wife of 64 years, Monica Matte, a strong feminist who died in 2008. They were a power couple before the term had been invented, fleeing Romania together, earning doctorates in international law and being among a small number of couples to both be named to the Order of Canada.

Dr. Matte died April 13 at the age of 102, seven years after retiring from the Montreal law firm BCF Business Law. His grandson Jordan-Nicolas Matte said he had more energy than all his family members combined.

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Dr. Matte headed McGill's Institute of Air and Space Law, wrote 18 books and co-authored 13 others, co-founded the Cosmodome science museum in Laval, helped develop the city of Brossard, where a street is now named after him, mentored hundreds of students and brought Russian and Western astronauts together in his home at the height of the Cold War. He was also one of five commissioners of the Gendron Commission, which led to making French the official language of Quebec.

"I never felt like his work or his prestige or titles made him distant from us in any way," his grandson said. "He was probably the kindest and most affectionate grandfather I could have dreamed of."

Born Dec. 3, 1913, in Craiova, Romania, to Ion Mateesco and Marioara Dumitrescu, he earned a doctorate in law from the University of Bucharest in 1939.

One evening at the end of the Second World War, a panicked cousin knocked on the family's door in the middle of the night and warned them that the Russians were on their way and they should leave the country. Mr. Matte went against popular belief at the time that the Americans would save them, took his 23-year-old bride and, defying her family, fled. Their car was confiscated at the border, so the couple continued on foot until they caught a train bound for Italy. But a blown-up bridge forced a detour to France.

The couple, who faked their deaths in a car accident in order to protect the family members they left behind from prosecution, stayed in Paris for four years, where Dr. Matte obtained a doctorate in international law from the Université de Paris.

They arrived in Canada in 1950, alone, penniless and living in a basement apartment.

They changed their family name from Mateesco to Matte so their children would better fit in with their parents' adopted province of Quebec.

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In 1951, Dr. Matte became a professor at the University of Montreal, where he also became the first chair of air law. His long association with McGill's Institute of Air and Space Law began in 1961 when he became visiting professor. Dr. Matte was named director of the institute in 1976 and remained there until his retirement in 1991.

Anne-Karyne Matte said her parents became ersatz parents for many European students at the institute.

In 2006, at the age of 92, Dr. Matte travelled with students to Romania to teach them first-hand about his history.

"He had a love for life and human beings, and his students kept him young for a very long time," Ms. Matte said. "He'd be with people 20 years younger than him and he'd say, 'What am I doing with these old people?'"

He kept fit by doing stretching exercises every morning and drove his wife crazy by requesting only chicken for weeknight meals. At the age of 75, he was still able to beat his son-in-law at tennis. But it was his love of young people that really kept him young, admirers say.

Stéphane Lessard was studying law at the Université de Montréal in the early 1980s when a classmate invited him to check out an international relations club on campus. Dr. Matte, who at the time was teaching at McGill University, was the "guiding light" of the gatherings, Mr. Lessard says.

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"It was run by students for students but it had the good fortune to have him as a patron," he said. "This man was already wealthy, already famous and already had the Order of Canada.

"He certainly had other things to do with his evenings but he would go to this club for students, invite us to his home and speak with us one on one."

It was Dr. Matte who convinced Mr. Lessard to study air and space law at McGill, which led to an 11-year stint at the Canadian Space Agency, then at foreign affairs and now with Health Canada.

"It all started with a man who took the time to listen to the ideas of a 19-year-old guy who wanted to change the world," Mr. Lessard recalled. "I'm just one of hundreds who was inspired, guided and mentored by him."

Ram Jakhu had Dr. Matte as a professor at the institute for four years, then as his boss for more than a decade, and next month will follow his mentor's footsteps by becoming director.

Dr. Jakhu recalled that while at Dr. Matte's 99th birthday celebration at a friend's house, the guest of honour pulled a piece of paper from his jacket on which Dr. Jakhu's name was written.

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"He said, 'Ram, I'm getting old and sometimes I forget names but I don't want to forget yours,'" Dr. Jakhu recalled. "I had tears in my eyes. He really cared about people and was very humble and positive."

The Institute for Air and Space Law grew substantially under Dr. Matte's leadership and through his networks and contacts, he generated money for the university.

"The late eighties and early nineties was a critical time in world politics, but he brought people together," Dr. Jakhu said.

Dr. Matte is survived by his son, Daniel; daughter, Anne-Karyn, and two grandsons.

And since his death, countless former students have contacted the family to say they adored him.

"You can build influence through ideas but also through generosity of spirit," Mr. Lessard said. "I never met someone who would make the effort [like Dr. Matte] and take the time to pass on the torch to the next generation."

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