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Gordon Dryden: The quiet death of a leading Liberal voice

Gordon Dryden, Liberal politician, is shown in November, 1964.


He was a Liberal Party heavyweight who had the ear of prime ministers Lester B. Pearson and Pierre Elliott Trudeau. In his 18 years as federal party treasurer, his name appeared in newspapers, where he was described as a Grit disciple with partisan fire in his belly.

He spearheaded Cell 13, a Toronto group vital to the 1960s Liberal revival, working alongside the likes of Judy LaMarsh, Boyd Upper and Royce Frith. He helped Canada secure its own flag, centralized the party's coffers and left his stamp on election financing legislation.

Just over a year ago, that noteworthy political figure, Gordon Dryden, died at 86 and was quietly buried at a small funeral in Guelph, Ont. When contacted recently by The Globe and Mail, some of Mr. Dryden's comrades expressed woeful obliviousness to his Jan. 14, 2013, passing. Unlike Mr. Dryden's contemporaries and friends, such as Keith Davey and Jim Coutts, there was no obituary, no public outpouring.

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"He was always the guy doing the drudgery work of the Liberal Party," said former Liberal senator Jerry Grafstein, who grew closer to Mr. Dryden after the tumultuous 1968 leadership convention that elected Mr. Trudeau. "I think Gordon is one of the unappreciated characters."

Mr. Dryden passed away after complications following heart surgery, leaving behind wife Mary Lou Dryden, brother Barrie Dryden Sr. and son Barrie Dryden Jr. He also raised George Dryden, who in 2011 was disproved as his biological child.

"He's an important party figure," said former Liberal MP John English, who interviewed Mr. Dryden for his Trudeau biography, Just Watch Me. "He represented a tradition of solid, fiscal integrity for the party."

Mr. Dryden's relatives, who spoke through the family's lawyer, say the low-key farewell is part of a Dryden penchant for privacy. But some of those who knew Mr. Dryden hypothesize that recent events might help explain the discreet departure: George Dryden unsuccessfully sued Mr. Dryden for millions, alleging emotional abuse and financial wrongdoing, and then proved through a headline-grabbing DNA test that Mr. Dryden was not his biological father.

George Dryden asserts he is instead the son of John Diefenbaker. Since Gordon Dryden's passing, George Dryden said he has genetically proved he is related to a set of Saskatchewan brothers who believe their father was the Conservative prime minister's son. "[The DNA results] explained a lot," said George Dryden, who has retained a lawyer to seek access to his mother, whom he is not authorized to visit at a Toronto nursing home. "He was very distant and cold."

Long-time friend and former Liberal senator Lorna Marsden said when she saw Mr. Dryden a little over a year ago, he was "distraught" and suggested perhaps there had been a switch of babies at birth. She said he was also upset over what he described as his wife's declining health.

It was his youngest son, Barrie Dryden Jr., who delivered a eulogy at the Jan. 21, 2013, memorial service. He spoke of his father's encyclopedic knowledge of history and geography, telling mourners, "He said often, 'I have never been bored in my life. The world is much too interesting.'"

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Mr. Dryden entered the world on May 3, 1926, son of George and Florence Dryden, farm owners who counted William Lyon Mackenzie King among their friends. "Young Dryden absorbed Liberal politics with his porridge," Christina McCall-Newman wrote in her book, Grits: An Intimate Portrait of the Liberal Party.

He left the farm for Toronto, where he was called to the bar in 1950 and was elected to the Ontario Young Liberals executive. Although he was most comfortable in formal settings, sporting three-piece suits and lecturing on politics, he was also at ease in a straw hat on the farm. Mr. Grafstein remembered Mr. Dryden fondly as a "rare bird" whom Trudeau found "interesting but odd," and Tom Axworthy, Trudeau's former principal secretary and speechwriter, said most of his Dryden memories are of "sitting in an office somewhere with him, listening."

Mr. Dryden earned his living as a lawyer, including as general counsel for the now-defunct Unity Bank of Canada. But it was in 1958, after the Diefenbaker Conservatives swept the nation, that Mr. Dryden became the stuff of Liberal lore. Every two weeks for four years, Cell 13 met at Toronto's King Edward Hotel to map out strategies that were later credited with tripling Liberal membership in the city.

"Everybody thought it would take forever for the party to come back," said Dr. Upper, a close friend who served with Mr. Dryden on the party's constitution committee. "We knew we weren't going to last forever, and we thought we'd better start working right away."

George Dryden said Gordon Dryden was effectively "married" to the Liberal Party. But friends say Mr. Dryden fell in love with Mary Lou, a soprano soloist and active Conservative. A headline for their 1967 nuptials read "Conservative and Liberal united," and Mr. Pearson sent a message that was read aloud at the bipartisan reception.

Peers describe Mr. Dryden's tenure as treasurer as scandal-free, though in 1984 the party launched a rare probe into complaints that election advertising dollars weren't properly accounted for. One of Mr. Dryden's tactics – a money-back guarantee for donors – was branded by the press as "bizarre." In 1988, he hinted at what might have inspired that move, telling The Globe, "If you've got no gas in the tank, it doesn't matter what a wonderful trip you've got planned."

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After his 1986 retirement, Mr. Dryden met regularly with friends to discuss politics, including the Liberals' dramatic 2011 defeat. But his latter days are said to have been spent at the nursing home visiting his wife, and at North York General Hospital, where he read a biography of Winston Churchill – one of his heroes – before his surgery.

Family lawyer and close friend Bob Hart said he once asked Mr. Dryden why he never penned an insider's book, and he replied: "What I know was confidential then, and should remain so now."

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