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The Gift: $250,000

The Cause: Fort York Foundation

The Reason: To revamp Fort York for bicentennial commemoration of the War of 1812

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Stephen Otto has spent more than 40 years studying history and working as a historian. He has written several heritage books, managed Ontario's heritage conservation programs, co-ordinated the province's bicentennial celebrations and won numerous awards for his efforts to preserve several buildings, bridges, cemeteries and markets in Toronto.

But Mr. Otto has always had a special fondness for Fort York, a walled fort located in downtown Toronto that dates back to the city's founding in 1793. He co-founded the Friends of Fort York in 1994 and included a bequest to the Fort York Foundation as part of his estate planning.

Last spring, Mr. Otto, 69, changed his plans. "I almost died of pneumonia in April and I thought to myself, 'Why leave it as a bequest,' " he recalled from his Toronto home.

He decided to make a $250,000 donation to the foundation and announced the gift last month during a speech to accept an award from Heritage Toronto.

"I said at the end that I wanted [members of the audience]to be the stewards of the site," Mr. Otto said, "and that maybe some of them would want to make a donation as well. I wouldn't ask anything of them that I wasn't prepared to do myself."

Mr. Otto's gift is part of a $6-million fundraising campaign aimed at revamping the fort in time for bicentennial celebrations of the War of 1812. The plans include a new visitor centre and several renovations to the 42-acre site.

Mr. Otto is battling lymphoma but he's determined to be at the celebrations in 2012. He never tires of visiting Fort York. "It always brings a smile to my face when I watch a busload of kids [arrive]" he said. "They go tearing up that drive and do a hard right and run off to the plywood box, grab their wooden rifles and seem within two minutes to have organized themselves into a 'we' and a 'they' and they are busy crawling all over the ramparts."

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pwaldie@globeandmail.com

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