Skip navigation

Saturday July 24, 2010

Quietest, youngest Irving was the mortar that held the three brothers together

At 50, he survived a kidnapping, offering himself as hostage instead of his wife

There are only three times when a gentleman should be mentioned in the press according to ancient etiquette: when he is born, the day he marries and the announcement of his death.

With rare exceptions - his kidnapping in 1982 being a prime instance - Jack Irving, the quietest of the late K.C. Irving's three media shy sons, rigorously ascribed to that adage.

The billionaire industrialist, who had been in failing health for several years, died in St. Joseph's Hospital on July 21 in St. John, New Brunswick, the city he had called home for all of his 78 years. He leaves his wife Suzanne, three children, six grandchildren and his older brothers James and Arthur, none of whom was willing to break the pattern to speak about him for his obituary.

Instead, the family owned newspaper, the Telegraph-Journal, conveyed the message in copious detail that Irving was a man who was "intelligent and confident, yet humble about the extent of his own accomplishment," and who embodied "strength of character, vision and integrity."

Nevertheless, the truth is pretty close to that encomium.

"Very nice, guy, very soft spoken" New Brunswick French Fry king Wallace McCain said in a telephone interview. "Jack was a very kind, gentle man. I never heard anybody say anything bad about him."

McCain, who worked for the Irvings in the late 1940s and early 1950s, before leaving to build his own processed food empire with his late brother Harrison McCain, was very close to the older Irving brothers in those days and has remained a family friend.

"I chummed around mostly with Arthur and we used to raise hell together for a few years, but Jack was the baby brother," said McCain, although, at 80, he is only two years older than the youngest Irving.

There was no rivalry among the brothers, ever, according to McCain. And, despite, K.C. Irving's reputation as a tough businessman, he was a very sweet man as husband and father.

"He was a tough nut," McCain agreed, in business, but not where it matters most - at home. "I never heard him say a harsh word to anybody in my life."

The three Irving sons inherited their father's work ethic, Presbyterian values, well-mannered civility and entrepreneurial savvy.

Unlike the dissolute lifestyles embraced by the wealthy offspring of so many self-made tycoons, they grew into the epitome of sobriety - clean-living, family types, who worked hard and gave back to the community.

If they fought amongst themselves over succession or corporate strategy, it was a secret more deeply guarded than the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden.

Nevertheless, it is generally understood that Jack Irving was happy to take a less dynamic role in the corporate decision making.

The citation for the honorary degree he (along with his brothers) was awarded from Acadia University in 2003 offers a succinct composite of his qualities:

"While involved in many diverse aspects of the family's business, Jack's special area of interest has always been building and construction. Jack's levelheaded, common sense approach is often the mortar that holds the dynamic threesome on track.

"His great ability to focus on the details - improving workplace efficiency and productivity - has resulted in innovative improvements to the company's various facilities."

Probably the most traumatic event of Jack Irving's adult life occurred on a Friday evening in May, 1982, the year he turned 50. He and his wife Suzanne were at home relaxing at the end of the work week.

Suddenly, Stephen Gerald Childs, 22, an out-of-work security guard, with bubble-headed delusions of opening a health club, invaded their house and shoved a fake .45-calibre Colt revolver in Irving's face. Childs wanted to take Suzanne Irving hostage, but Irving persuaded the world-be kidnapper to take him instead.

Thus began a terrifying ordeal in which Irving was bound and gagged, driven to a parked van, thrown inside, covered with an old blanket and ferried about town as his abductor stopped at random telephone booths to make calls to the Irving house, hoping to negotiate a ransom of $600,000.

By 4 a.m. the police had tapped the Irving's home phone. Three hours later, they had traced a call to a phone booth in the city centre. Shortly thereafter they arrested Childs and freed Irving. At trial, Childs pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 121/2 years.

There are those who say the kidnapping made Irving retreat even more into the embrace of family and friends. If so, he never commented publicly. Instead, he carried on working most closely with his brother Arthur at Irving Oil.

Over the years he, along with his brothers, received many honours, including induction into the Business Hall of Fame and being named to the Order of Canada.

Economist Elizabeth Parr-Johnston met the Irving brothers when she was president of the University of New Brunswick from 1996-2002. "They had different interests, but they were definitely a team," she said. She remembers Jack Irving as "bright, quiet" and "a gentle, capable, strong individual," who read widely in history, biography and literature and was interested in supporting research into composite materials and engineering.

The other trait she noted was his dislike of the limelight. He was a very humble, but very strong individual, with a very strong code of ethics. "I never asked him to do anything that was wrong, but I always had a sense that whatever he was doing was coming from his core principles, and they were good ones."

After the patriarch's death in 1992, the Irvings had given a substantial gift - in the range of $2- or $3-million - to build the K.C. Irving Hall on the Saint John's campus of UNB. After complying with building code upgrades, there was a shortfall of about $500,000.

Unwilling to ask for yet more money, Parr-Johnston suggested (in a meeting with the brothers in Arthur Irving's office at Irving Oil) that the university should quietly raise the rest of the funds from the larger community. "They looked at each other - it was just eye contact - and Jack said 'you will have to excuse us' and they left the room."

A few fretful minutes later, in which she worried that the project might have fallen through, the three men returned and handed Parr-Johnston a cheque.

"We don't want anybody else to have a role in this building," she remembers them saying. "It is ours." That was how deeply they regarded their father's legacy and influence.

Today the privately held Irving empire is the dominant player in Atlantic Canada's oil and gas, forestry, pulp and paper, steel, media, shipbuilding, transportation, retail and construction sectors.

The Irving name is everywhere in New Brunswick, from the bold red white and blue diamond emblem on gas stations throughout the province to the less visible, but nonetheless powerful, control of most of the broadcast and print media in the province. The family's net worth is estimated by Forbes magazine at $4-billion (U.S.).

Although K.C. Irving had abruptly moved his assets offshore late in 1971 and taken up permanent residence in Bermuda to lessen the demands of provincial and federal tax collectors, his sons have remained New Brunswick's most prominent employers, benefactors and residents.

Donald Savoie, professor of public policy at the University of Moncton, was born in Bouctouche, K.C. Irving's hometown, so he has known the family and its influence all his life. "Jack's passing gives New Brunswickers pause to appreciate the contribution the Irvings have made to the province, and it is substantial. I think what you are seeing and hearing in N.B. over the past few days is just that," he said in an interview.

"We don't often think about what they have done in the business community - the number of jobs - but over and above that, they have been present at the community level, endowing universities and giving back," he said, making special note of way the Irving family had invested in rebuilding the culture, natural environment and ecology of Bouctouche. "We paused when K.C. passed away and I think New Brunswickers are taking pause again and reflecting on the contribution the Irvings have made."

As for Jack Irving, Savoie considers him a model of civility, who was polite to "a fault" and a man with a "deep, deep attachment to Saint John and the province." Irving's most notable aspect, when you chatted with him at a social gathering or a meeting, according to Savoie, was his ability to focus on what you were saying.

"Jack was just as comfortable talking to a carpenter on a job site as a financier from New York," said Savoie, who quickly corrected himself to say, "No, he was more comfortable talking to a carpenter."

The family business began with James Dergavel (J.D.) Irving, the son of a Scottish immigrant, who bought a small sawmill in Bouctouche in 1881. His son Kenneth Colin branched out from the lumber business in the 1920s as a Model-T Ford salesman, and then became the agent for an oil company so that he could sell customers both a vehicle and the fuel to keep it running. With a $2,000 bank loan, he formed the Irving Oil Company in 1924. Eventually it morphed into service stations, bus lines, oil tankers and refineries, all of which required his petroleum products.

In the late 1920s, K.C. Irving married Harriet MacNarin, a young woman from nearby Galloway who was working in the Irving family store in Bouctouche. They quickly had three sons, James (1929), Arthur (1931) and John E. (Jack) who was born on Jan. 1, 1932 in Saint John.

Early on, the boys were inculcated into the entrepreneurial mould. By the time he was eight, Jack was raising chickens with his older brothers and selling eggs to neighbours during the Second World War. Beginning with a dozen hens, they expanded their flock to more than 1,500 by the time the men came back from overseas.

He attended Rothesay Collegiate, a private boys' school near Saint John, where he was nicknamed "Gassy," according to The Canadian Press. He played guard for the basketball team, captained the rugby team and was a chess champion. The school yearbook, claimed his destiny was "$25-million."

After graduating from Rothesay in 1950, he went to Acadia University, as had his father and his older brothers before him. After only two years at university, he was summoned by his father to work alongside older brother Arthur at Irving Oil, mainly on the construction side of the expanding empire.

By the late 1950s, he was managing construction and engineering projects, including building about 100 service stations a year, with retail outlets and lunch counters, and other major infrastructure projects.

"He was the builder," Pat Darrah, a friend for more than 50 years and executive director of the Saint John Construction Association, told The Canadian Press. "Every service station, every bulk plant, and every warehouse of Irving Oil you see in the four Atlantic provinces and Quebec, that was done under his tutelage."

On his twenty-eighth birthday, Jan, 1, 1960, Irving married Suzanne Farrer, with whom he eventually had three children, Anne, John and Colin. By all accounts, a devoted family man, Irving also loved the outdoors, especially the area around Passamaquoddy Bay, where he purchased a large property. An avid kayaker and birdwatcher, he was a long time member and supporter of the wildlife organization, Ducks Unlimited and the Nature Trust of New Brunswick.

The funeral is scheduled for today at Trinity Anglican Church in Saint John.

Back to top