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His early bout with polio taught him an appreciation for life, and his father's tutelage gave him the fundamentals for running a successful enterprise
Special to The Globe and Mail

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Monday, October 8, 2018 – Page B17

When Charles Diamond was a boy, he spent Sundays with his father and little brother, dutifully visiting the family businesses.

There, at the tiny meatpacking plant that would grow up to become one of B.C.'s largest and at the racetrack in Richmond that would later become Exhibition Park on Vancouver's east side, Jack Diamond taught his sons everything he knew about running an enterprise. About building something up from nothing and not being afraid to fail. About leaving something on the negotiating table as a sign of goodwill, giving back to the community and honouring family.

The last two were the most important lessons of all.

In effect, the father, who emigrated from Galicia to Vancouver in 1927 with just a few cents in his pockets and a drive that near single-handedly built a dynasty, was showing his sons what it meant to be a mensch - the Yiddish word for a person of integrity and honour.

Charles Diamond took these lessons to heart, whether he was funding a startup, donating clothes to a homeless mission or contributing to institutions such as the B.C.

Children's Hospital. Mr. Diamond, who died on Sept. 14 after suffering a series of seizures, was 84 years old. A survivor of polio, he had a steely will that saw him become a "million-mile" man on Air Canada, with business trips to places such as Asia and Ottawa and, when he turned 50, cycle the "amateur" Tour de France, despite missing most of one lung.

Funny and quick-witted, Mr. Diamond did not suffer fools or incompetence gladly, and he could give those who didn't know him the sense that he was abrupt and unfeeling.

"But Charles simply said what was on his mind," said Irving Sirlin, a long-time friend and former business partner.

"If you were to write a list of all the things you wanted a partner to be, he would personify it. He was the most important guy in my life."

Charles Diamond was born in Vancouver on March 23, 1934, the first of Jack and Sadie Diamond's two sons. He was an energetic, mischievous child. In elementary school, he delighted in reading comic books, riding the streetcar or his bicycle through the city and aiming his BB gun toward the feet of girls in his west-side neighbourhood, exhorting them to "dance, DANCE."

His mother thought that a job stocking shelves at a local fruit store would help her son learn a bit of responsibility, or at least make him less incorrigible, and he started working there at the age of 12.

During his teens, he worked the floor of the meatpacking plant, stuffing sausages and hot dog casings as he learned the business from the ground up.

When he was 15, he'd just returned home from working at a ranch in Alberta when his legs gave out. It turned out he'd contracted a severe case of polio and was quarantined in a local hospital. Although people weren't supposed to visit, each night his father brought a big ladder to the hospital, clambered up and entered his room through the window. The older man wanted his son to feel loved and needed; that, he thought, was the key to his survival.

Years later, in 1967, Charles's eldest son, Craig, would recall coming home from elementary school every day for months to find his father immobilized on the sofa, recovering from an operation to remove most of a lung, which was linked to the bout with polio.

"The realization that he could have died or spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair gave Dad an appreciation of life that most of us can't imagine," the son said. "When he was well, he was ready to do anything."

And invariably, no matter how he was feeling, when someone asked how he was doing, he'd answer, "I'm perfect." Sometimes, it may have sounded short and snappish but, given the alternative, he meant it.

At 19, while an undergraduate at the University of British Columbia., Mr. Diamond first met Isabelle Lancaster, who would become his wife. She was 17 and working part-time in a delicatessen, carrying loaves of just-delivered rye bread from the back to the front of the store.

"Who do you think is going to buy the bread now that you've touched it?" he asked.

She wasn't impressed.

A second meeting two years later was just as disastrous, and he stood her up for lunch after a third meeting, this time in Los Angeles, where she was working for an oral surgeon.

Upon her return to Vancouver, she was at synagogue for the Jewish New Year when she saw him looking up at her. When he called after services to ask her out, she cautiously agreed. They were married the following spring.

After getting a law degree from UBC in 1958, Mr. Diamond joined his father and brother, Gordon, in businesses that would later be split down the middle.

Over the years, he would branch out to his own businesses, which he operated with his eldest son, and funnel charitable work through a foundation called B.C.

Turf. He was active on boards, including Export Development Canada and John Labatt Ltd., which owned the Blue Jays major league team during his tenure; he was delighted when the Jays won the 1993 World Series and he got a championship ring as a result.

Perhaps because of his near-fatal illness as a teen, Mr.

Diamond supported his wife's volunteer work at B.C.

Children's Hospital with his heart and his wallet. Although she was the one who sat on the board and later on its capital campaign executive committee, he was there for everything, from galas to the Children's Miracle Network Telethon.

As a father, he taught his own three children there is no replacement for hard work and that family always comes first.

Once, when he learned that his son Alan had been badly burned while at a camp in B.C.'s south Cariboo several days earlier, he drove through the night to pick him up, fierce and furious.

"For much of his life, he was able to let things go - but not so much in this case," recalled Mr. Diamond, a radiologist.

In 2014, before a black-tie crowd of more than 1,600 people, Charles and Gordon Diamond were given the Ernst & Young Family Business Award of Excellence; the emcee noted that in a rapidly changing business environment, it was fitting to recognize those whose entrepreneurship and philanthropy have proven the test of time.

As Charles's health deteriorated, as he went from a walker to a wheelchair, he still never complained.

The day before he died, he woke up, groggy, and his wife asked him how he was feeling.

True to form, he replied: "I'm perfect."

Mr. Diamond leaves his wife, Isabelle; children, Craig and Alan Diamond, and Helene Nathan; their spouses; nine grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and his brother, Gordon.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Associated Graphic

Businessman Charles Diamond was known for his entrepreneurial skills and philanthropy. Over the years, Mr. Diamond branched out his own businesses and funnelled charitable work through a foundation called B.C Turf. JONATHAN CRUZ

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