When Ron Brigham started collecting stamps in 1953, he did it for the simple pleasure of spending evenings with his father, Royden, sitting around their kitchen table in east Toronto.
"Dad just bought 10,000 stamps and spread them on the table," Mr. Brigham said. "That was before we had TV, and you had to do something with your time."
Those long nights sorting, soaking and mounting the scraps of postage taught the nine-year-old about the history and geography of Canada.
Mr. Brigham said they also left him with an enduring enthusiasm for philately, the study and collection of postage stamps.
Half a century later, Mr. Brigham still complains there isn't much on television. And he still loves stamps.
In June, he captured the hobby's highest honour, the Grand Prix D'Honneur, at a competition in Belgium.
It was the first time a Canadian had won the prize, after 75 years of Canada competing at the international level.
"This [the Grand Prix]is the Olympic Gold of stamp collecting," said Tim McGurrin, a spokesman for Canada Post in Ottawa. "Ron Brigham is very big in the stamp scene."
Michael Nowlan, an official at the Royal Philatelic Society of Canada in Oromocto, N.B., said the achievement is impressive because Mr. Brigham assembled a display using only Canadian stamps that satisfied the judges' three criteria: historical significance, comprehensiveness, and creativity.
"He deserves a tremendous amount of credit," Mr. Nowlan said. "He never gives up."
Mr. Brigham has become so important to Canada's postal records, in fact, that Canada Post was recently forced to borrow his die proof of the country's first stamp. The service wanted to print postage celebrating its 150th anniversary, but it didn't have its own copy of the stamp.
He also holds Canada's rarest stamp, a two-cent portrait of Queen Victoria in green ink on laid paper. Only two exist, and Mr. Brigham estimates it's worth more than half a million dollars.
It was the centrepiece of his display, entitled "Large Queens of Canada, 1868-1897," that won the international prize.
Mr. Brigham said he can afford the expensive hobby because he has owned a profitable construction-supply business in Mississauga for 35 years. His collection is worth "millions."
But he's often competing against royalty and owners of multinational corporations, he said, and his only advantage is determination.
"Sometimes it just boils down to whoever has the deepest pockets," he said.
"But you're bound to be successful at something if you keep plugging away at it," he said, adding with a laugh, ". . . even if it's making love."
He considers his collection a serious responsibility, though. He's constantly answering phone calls and faxes from scholars and school groups who want to see his stamps. He's also meticulous about security, checking the weather and the political situation before flying to foreign countries for stamp shows. Too much humidity could spoils the stamps' glue, he said, and too much civil unrest increases the risk of theft.
"You don't want to walk into a war zone with a piece of Canadian heritage," he said.