Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A rich man, but wealth only part of it

Richardson lived his life well

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It was last Sunday, while my wife and I were walking our dog in Munson Park, when I had a vision of George Richardson. Not a sighting, just a fond thought of the man. That's because we were walking in a park that had been the Wellington Crescent river property where he lived and played as a child and where his father, James Armstrong Richardson, had suddenly taken ill and died in 1939 when George was only 14.

George was 89 now, and I remarked to Athina it had been years since we had seen him in public and I was concerned he was gravely ill.

Then, on Wednesday evening, my home phone rang. It was the office.

George Taylor Richardson had died.

***

I didn't know him well, but you only had to meet him once to get a sense of the man.

"You just felt you were in the presence of a special person," said Jack Palmer, a longtime human-resources manager at James Richardson & Sons Ltd.

"You'd do anything for him."

He spoke about how honest and open George was and how quietly generous his former boss was when employees or former employees were in genuine need.

In my view, George Richardson personified the down-to-earth nature of Winnipeg. Yet he was a towering presence who stood out, both physically -- he was 6-4 -- and among the country's big-business elite. To me, he was like a grain elevator, one of the silent sentinels of the Canadian West that stood out on the Prairies and established the family fortune, but have now all but vanished from the scene.

I got to know him better, though, how he got to be who he was, reading from Just Common Sense; The Life and Times of George Taylor Richardson, the authorized biography written by Tim Higgins.

It was the chapter on his childhood that best explained the how he became who he was.

George was born Sept. 22, 1924, the third of James and Muriel Richardson's four children. By then, the couple had found 475 Wellington Cres., a wide two-storey house with a welcoming veranda, that lawyer James Munson had built in what was then the country.

The Richardsons had a stable and a greenhouse, but left the rest of the property largely trails and bush. It was there young George and his older brother, Jim, would fish and play and be introduced to a lifetime love of the outdoors and animals.

As a child, George had two goats, Nanny and Billy, that would pull him along the street in his red wagon. At age five, George would ride his Shetland pony to a home on Kingsway, near Stafford, that served as a nursery school.

"Then, I'd get off the pony, twist the lines around the saddle horn, give him a little touch and off he'd go back home."

A month after his fifth birthday, the stock market crashed and the Depression had begun. Even in those days, the Richardson's family-owned business was diversified and able to survive. Yet, the Richardsons were raised as if they had little, repairing rather than throwing out worn goods. That made George feel as if he was just like everyone else.

"I don't think we ever felt our family was different, or unusual," he said of the time.

Although, looking back, when he was five, George did meet Winston Churchill when the future prime minister of Britain was visiting the family at Lake of the Woods.

It was the family's frugality that first brought out the entrepreneur in him. To supplement his meagre allowance, the little guy set up a trapline south of the city that outsmarted weasels and provided pelts for him to skin, dress and sell. Although, when the future first Canadian governor of the Hudson's Bay Company arrived alone to sell his furs as a child, the Bay's trader tried to rip him off. He was offered $1.50, then $2.50, his biographer wrote.

"Thank you very much," young George responded, "but no thanks. I'm told they're worth about $12. So good day."

George got his $12 a pelt at Sydney I. Robinson. What did he do with the money? He invested it, of course.

George seemed a natural at all he tried -- from athletics and academics, to shooting and mechanics.

Like the trails of the family's river-front city home, George's love of nature was nurtured at the Lake of the Woods in the summer and on winter and spring weekends at Briarmeade, the farm beside the Red River George's grandfather bought in 1917.

They all had been at the farm together for the last time on a Sunday in late June, 1939.

The day before his father died and George's childhood ended.

"While he was shaving, he felt unwell and returned to bed," George would recall in his biography. "That's where he died. I remember my mother taking me in to see him."

If, by that time, he hadn't absorbed the virtues his father had modelled -- generosity, fairness and duty to place -- his mother, Muriel, would reinforce them when she took over the company.

It was in 1973 when his mother died and the family gave the City of Winnipeg the Wellington Crescent property where George and his siblings had lived and played as children, to be used as a park. A place his biographer described the way George must have felt about it.

"For a boy with an outdoor bent, a child quite comfortable with being alone, it was heaven."

It is, of course, the same heavenly place where, last weekend, my wife and I walked our dog and thought fondly of George Richardson and how long it had been since we had seen him.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 17, 2014 B4

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