Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'Goodbye, old friend'

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HE had power, money and prestige, but what mattered most to Israel Asper was his family.

If it wasn't obvious before, it was crystal clear when his children and grandchildren stood and shared personal memories with 1,600 mourners at his funeral service yesterday.

"He was crazy about my mom, and I know family meant everything to him," daughter Gail said.

The children vowed to keep faith with his principles, particularly his commitment to the city.

"We have your checklist. We know what's left to be done, and we will not let you down," said Leonard, CEO of CanWest Global Communications Corp., the media giant founded by his father.

"Goodbye, old friend," Leonard said emotionally. "Goodbye, Dad."

About 1,500 people attended the service inside the Shaarey Zedek Synagogue on Wellington Crescent, while another 100 stood outside under blue skies and falling leaves.

As mourners entered the synagogue, they were treated to jazz played by Ron Paley and two other musicians, a recognition of Asper's lifelong musical passion.

The funeral was attended by Canada's political and business leaders, including Prime Minister Jean Chretien and the chief executive officers of more than 20 major corporations.

Many people arrived hours before the funeral started at 1 p.m. to ensure a seat. Even Paul Martin, likely the country's next prime minister, arrived an hour early.

Asper, 71, died Tuesday following a heart attack in his Wellington Crescent condominium he had recently moved into with his wife, Babs.

Following the service, hundreds of people gathered at the synagogue's cemetery in north Winnipeg.

There, with the sky still bright, mourners took turns shovelling a spadeful of dirt onto Asper's simple wooden coffin.

The practice symbolizes the covering of the soul before it moves into the after-life.

Earlier at the synagogue, Rabbi Alan Green described Asper as "a genuine Jewish hero" for his work in defending Israel and contributing to many causes in the embattled country.

"It doesn't seem possible we'll see his like again," Green said.

Ron Polinsky, speaking on behalf of a group of old friends, talked about jazz bars they had visited in North America and how Asper helped the careers of many musicians.

Polinsky said Asper had been frustrated in the weeks before his death by opposition to his plans to build a $270 million human rights museum at The Forks.

"He was frustrated that many people didn't buy into his vision," he said.

The most emotional moments were provided by Asper's children.

"I'll always love you, and I want to thank you for all you've taught me, which I promise never to forget and which I promise to pass on to my children," Gail told the hushed crowd.

Even his 13-year-old grandson, Daniel, bravely stood before the microphone with the other grandchildren, Rebecca, Max, Stephen, Jonathan, Sarah, and Olivia.

"The reason why his heart stopped was because he put so much of it into lives of others and my only wish is to grow up to be like him," Daniel said.

Son David noted that while much has been said and written about Asper the tycoon, "not much has been told of his most important role in life. Dad."

David said his dad was loving but tough.

"There was no room in his world for anything less than 100-per-cent effort."

And Leonard said that despite their wealth, the kids didn't get anything for free.

"In our house you got nothing unless you earned it," Leonard said. "You earned his respect by getting good grades at school, by working hard and doing whatever chore needed to be done."

Through anecdotes and stories, the children painted a picture of a man who shaped their lives and pushed them in positive directions, ensuring they would not be idle spectators in the parade of life.

David said he was a bit of a rebel in his youth and considered quitting law school.

His dad talked him out of it and David went on to a successful legal career, making his mark by helping free David Milgaard, who served 23 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit.

Leonard recalled the way his dad dropped him off at Brandeis University in Boston when he was 18 and unsure he wanted to study so far from home.

"As I stood there I must have looked lost, so he said to me, 'Don't worry. Your mother had you for the first 18 years. I get you for the next 18.' And thus began a deep intellectual relationship that sustained me over the years, wherever I lived."

Another important lesson he learned from his father was never to back down and he recounted a story about how his father took on five men outside a New York City jazz bar.

Asper told five men dressed in suits they were being too loud. The dispute escalated and Asper was challenged to go outside and settle the matter.

About 15 minutes after they went outside, Leonard went to see what had happened. Somehow, he said, his dad had won because the men left.

"The manager took me aside on the way out and said, 'Your dad is one ballsy guy.' "

Many people have commented that Asper's death has left work undone, but Gail said that would have been the case if he had lived another 20 years.

"No matter when he died, he'd leave many great things undone," she said.

Asper also had a great sense of humour, an aspect of his character that wasn't as evident in his public life, his children said.

"He once tried to suggest that velour was a plant from which house-coats were made," David remembered.

Business lessons came early in the Asper household.

When Leonard set up a lemonade stand when he was four, his dad gave him a long lecture on profitability.

The business was actually losing money, he noted, because Leonard had not taken into account the cost of producing the product, nor the cost of the ingredients and the capital cost of the wagon used to haul out the finished goods.

"Years later," Leonard said, "he told me that an entrepreneur was someone who stood on an empty lot and imagined a building there -- someone who saw not what is, but what could be."

All three children described their dad as a regular guy, despite his larger-than-life public persona.

"He did occasionally walk with princes, but he never lost the common touch," Leonard said. "I remember sitting with him in McDonald's late one night in Vancouver, wondering how many other billionaires went for a late night cheeseburger with their son.

"He said, 'Len, some people just don't know how to live.' "

The pallbearers were David and Leonard Asper; Moe Levy, head of the Asper Foundation; Richard Leipsic, a CanWest lawyer and friend; Sam Brask, a relative; Michael Patterson, Gail's husband; Neil Lofchy, a relative and Dr. Jack Rusen, his personal physician and friend.

dave.o'brien@freepress.mb.ca

PHOTO MIKE APORIUS /WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Pallbearers carry Israel Asper's casket out of synagogue. On left of photo, from back to front, they are Leonard Asper, Neil Lofchy, Dr. Jack Rusen and Richard Leipsic. On right side, from back to front, are David Asper, Sam Brask, Michael Patterson and Moe Levy.

PHOTO MIKE APORIUS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Paul Martin, Liberal prime-minister-in-waiting, leaves the Shaarey Zedek cemetery after funeral.

PHOTO KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Pallbearers, including Asper's sons Leonard and David, carry his coffin from Shaarey Zedek Synagogue after a service where Rabbi Alan Green described him as 'a genuine Jewish hero.'

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 10, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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