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Thomas Alexander (T. Alec) Rigby was ‘first and foremost a showman’

Alec Rigby offered to build a amusement park on a historical battle site in England. The public was not amused.

Copyright Ripley Entertainment Inc.

Thomas Alexander (T. Alec) Rigby was an adventurous entrepreneur, and an entrepreneurial adventurer, who traversed the seas of commerce with the same derring-do he used to skipper his beloved sailboats.

For more than 20 years, he owned Ripley's Believe It or Not, a business that capitalizes on public fascination with oddities. Ripley books and syndicated newspaper cartoons are filled with strange facts and stories, such as that of the woman who ran 365 marathons in the same number of days, or the man who walked backward around the world with the aid of a mirror.

Ripley Odditoriums, the company's version of museums, are filled with the bizarre, the wondrous and the just plain icky. A shrunken head, a medieval wrist-crusher and a cosmonaut's urine-collection bag are among thousands of rarities on display in Ripley museums around the world. The public is free to believe in their authenticity, or not.

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Under Mr. Rigby's guidance, Robert Ripley's initial cartoon, drawn in 1919, became an empire.

Mr. Rigby was born on April 6, 1928, in St. Catharines, Ont. He was the eldest of three children, and only son born to Thomas and Jean Rigby. Thomas Rigby owned a construction business and lumberyard. He was sufficiently prosperous to send his son, from 1940 to 1944, to Ridley College, a private boys' school in St. Catharines. For his final year of high school, the teen attended St. Catharines Collegiate.

Alec Rigby sailed with his family and excelled at hockey and football in school, but these were leisure activities. The young man was impatient for the real world, where he could establish himself. University was not his calling. He had ambition, a flair for business and energy to burn. His sister Caroline Rigby said, "He just wanted to get on with things."

After graduating, he trained as a deep-sea diver and worked on salvage. A man of medium height with a powerful build, he then hitchhiked across Canada, living and working with native communities while earning a living as a lumberjack.

In his early 20s, Mr. Rigby married Joan Stewart, a farm girl from the Niagara area. He bought a Texaco station near the QEW and, like many station owners of the day, displayed his name proudly above the door. His wife initially assisted as a cashier, but the arrival of four children – Jill, Tom, Penny and Sally – soon necessitated she stay at home.

Public attractions fascinated him, and he decided to build a swimming pool for families. But any old pool wouldn't do: In a hint of things to come, he decided it had to be the biggest in the world.

Sportsland Park, built in the early 1960s at Highways 400 and 7, boasted a pool that was Olympic size in width and many times Olympic-sized in length. It was so big, and could contain so many swimmers, that lifeguards patrolled its perimeter on horseback. Mr. Rigby purchased a miniature railway from Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen and added it to the gigantic watery attraction. Families flocked to partake of the park's pleasures, but Mr. Rigby wasn't content. He wanted even bigger, even better.

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An irresistible opportunity presented itself in 1959. John Arthur, a New York impresario and Broadway financier who owned Ripley's at the time, put out word that Ripley's franchises were available. Two Ripley Odditoriums already existed in New York and in St. Augustine, Fla. Fascinated by Ripley cartoons as a child, Mr. Rigby sold Sportsland and bought in. His first Odditorium opened in Niagara Falls at the beginning of 1963. Crowds lined up to get in. Mr. Arthur and Mr. Rigby opened two further Odditoriums, one in Chicago and one in San Francisco. By 1969, Mr. Rigby had bought Mr. Arthur out, becoming sole owner of the Ripley's business. That same year, he moved company headquarters from New York to Toronto.

In the early 1970s, in order to raise funds for the purchase of more Ripley locations, Mr. Rigby took the company public. Under his direction, the number of Ripley museums increased from four to nine. Shortly thereafter Mr. Rigby, impatient with being accountable to shareholders, purchased their shares back. By 1976, he was once again sole owner.

Edward Meyer, vice-president of exhibits and archives for Ripley's, hired by Mr. Rigby in 1978, said of his friend: "Alec was first and foremost a showman. He was the most fascinating man I ever met."

His favourite "Alec story" concerns a stunt Mr. Rigby pulled to focus attention on the newly opened Odditorium in Blackpool, England. At the time, British newspapers were covering a story about the site of the Battle of Hastings, where a famous clash took place during the Norman conquest of 1066. At issue was whether the government should preserve the site for historic value.

Mr. Rigby waded in with an announcement that, if no one else wanted it, he'd buy the land and turn it into a historical amusement park. A public outcry ensued. Mr. Rigby was front-page news. "By the time it was over Alec probably did want to buy the site, but I think it was, at least initially, a publicity stunt, one of the greatest in show business history if you ask me," Mr. Meyer said. As an aside he added, "In 1940, Robert Ripley tried to buy a Mexican volcano with the same result. I'm sure the volcano was Alec's inspiration."

When Mr. Rigby sold Ripley's in 1985, for four times his original investment, the company owned 14 museums, including North American Louis Tussaud's Wax Museums. The company had also expanded heavily into third-party licensing deals for TV shows, books, board games and other merchandise. Mr. Meyer said, "I don't think I've ever met anyone with a greater sense of wanderlust than Alec. The second a project was finished, he wanted to do something else."

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In the 1990s, Mr. Rigby went on to transform Atlas Environmental, a company that made clay-roofing tiles, into the largest independent construction debris recycling business in the southeastern United States. Ripley's, however, remained in his blood. With a natural instinct for successful locations, Mr. Rigby continued to be closely involved with the company, getting Ripley's back into New York in 2007, and opening in London, England, in 2008. He remained a partner in the two franchises. They continue to flourish.

As his fortune increased, Mr. Rigby was able to indulge a lifelong passion for sailing, buying bigger, faster and ever more luxurious sailboats. He crossed the Atlantic several times and made an icy journey to Norway's Nordkapp, one of the northernmost points of Europe. He loved to regale family and friends with stories of these adventures.

There was one adventure, however, that he was loath to talk about: the loss of his beloved 16-metre sailboat Inishfree, a teak-deck, mahogany-hull beauty and four-time winner of the Freeman Cup. In October, 1973, according to Royal Canadian Yacht Club records, the boat was heading south off the Carolina coast. At night, in bad weather and roiling seas, the boat was hit by a freakish double-trough wave. She began to take on water, eventually sinking.

After some bureaucratic bungling, the U.S. Coast Guard ultimately rescued Mr. Rigby and his crew of four. The harrowing experience, and loss of his prized boat, remained a raw emotional nerve for Mr. Rigby. In a Nov. 6, 1973, letter to crew member John Muir, Mr. Rigby wrote: "All of us will continue to question whether or not the right actions were taken as there are always different ways of getting to a problem. However, we are back on land and I feel all five of us are unquestionably stronger men."

He disliked talking about the incident, but continued to sail. His lifelong motto was: "Do what you fear most."

If he had the Midas touch in business, Mr. Rigby was less successful in his personal life, until he met a 35-year-old real-estate developer from Paris named Arlette Ravet. His first marriage had dissolved, as had a second, to an American. In 1979, Ms. Ravet was vacationing in Nassau with friends when they noticed a beautiful 25-metre ketch, the Jubilee III, sailing into harbour. Word was the boat was owned by "a weird Canadian businessman." Later, during Junkanoo, a Caribbean carnival parade, the man standing in front of Ms. Ravet turned around. Struck by her blond good looks, he inquired if she was German. "No" she replied. "I am French." "Oh," he said bluntly, "I hate French people."

It might not have seemed like an auspicious beginning, but Alec Rigby invited the Parisian aboard the Jubilee III for coffee. Friends warned against accepting the invitation lest he turn out to be a drug dealer. She accepted anyway. He sailed the next day. When she returned to Paris she found postcards awaiting her from Mr. Rigby. Three months later, during a business trip to New York, she called him. He insisted she come to Toronto because he disliked New York. It was the beginning of romance. They married in Toronto in 1983. The couple lived in Paris for three years and had two children, Romain and Emma.

Even though he never learned to speak French, Ms. Rigby said, friends and family adored her partner. "I had to translate for him," she says. "It was hysterically funny because he had such a dry sense of humour."

While in Paris, Mr. Rigby came close to finding a new location for Ripley's on the tourist-trampled Champs-Élysées, though financing ultimately fell through due to the leftist policies of the then-newly elected president, François Mitterrand. Undaunted, the couple returned to North America.

His wife accompanied him on many sailing adventures around the world, including to Scandinavia and Greenland. "He preferred the North and wilderness," she said. "He was very Canadian that way."

In later years, the couple divided their time between an island in Georgian Bay and a home in Florida. Possessing a strong sentimental streak, Mr. Rigby was an avid compiler of large scrapbooks. He put together so many that a special shelving unit had to be built in his Canadian home. Ms. Rigby said of the scrapbooks: "They're not organized. The fifties are thrown in with the eighties. To keep them in order would have been too boring for him."

Mr. Rigby never lost his fascination with oddball items. He took great delight in scouring flea markets and auctions looking for the unusual. Discovering a lamp made entirely from ice-cream sticks, he instructed his wife to find a place for it. She admits that their Georgian Bay home contains many oddities, including a shrunken head, though she keeps it hidden.

"My father didn't need alcohol. He didn't even drink tea or coffee," daughter K. Jill Rigby says. "He just had an incredible zest for life. He loved business. And he loved being out on the waves. If you can see a parallel between business and sailing, then you have a pretty profound sense of who he was." Arlette Rigby adds, "He was a visionary."

In a curious stroke of fate, after dying on July 24 at the age of 85 of leukemia in Buffalo, Mr. Rigby was taken to the nearby Amigone funeral parlour. Upon learning of Mr. Rigby's association with Ripley's, the funeral director approached the family with surprising news: The family name Amigone had twice appeared in Ripley newspaper cartoons as part of an ongoing thread about people or businesses with odd or coincidental names. "I like to think it was my Dad having the last laugh, as always," K. Jill Rigby said.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this obituary incorrectly said T. Alec Rigby took over his father's companies: Transit Mix, Niagara Concrete Pipe Ltd., and Inland Transport. In fact, the companies were taken over by others.

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