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They shall not be forgotten: Manitobans who made a difference

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A politician who cast a large shadow in this province, a pillar of the local business scene, the voice of the Prairies, a top lawyer, a sportswriter and broadcaster, the matriarch of one of the city's most philanthropic families, and a fan-favourite hockey player just 27 years old -- we all mourned their passing in 2011.

With the deaths of Reg Alcock, Albert Cohen, Fred McGuinness, Harry Walsh, Jack Matheson, Babs Asper and Rick Rypien, large shoes have been left for others to fill. Each of them, in their respective fields or endeavours, had a definite impact on our city and province.

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At one point in his political career, Alcock was the most powerful politician in Manitoba. He was a senior minister in the majority Liberal government. During his time -- like Lloyd Axworthy before him -- he had the ability to push a project ahead, as he did when he managed to secure the additional $70 million the federal government committed to the capital fund for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

Harry Walsh played a central role in having the death penalty abolished in Canada.

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Harry Walsh played a central role in having the death penalty abolished in Canada. (MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES) Photo Store

And even though his political career had ended before his sudden death of a heart attack Oct. 14 at Winnipeg James Armstrong Richardson International Airport, the 63-year-old Alcock had been actively engaged, working with the next generation of young people at the University of Manitoba's Asper School of Business, as executive in residence and associate dean.

"This puts me on campus within an exceptionally talented faculty and allows me the time to continue my research on how public-sector management must change to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing community," Alcock said at the time of his hiring in 2007.

Alcock worked at several administrative-position jobs, including the Children's Home of Winnipeg and the Seven Oaks Centre for Youth, before becoming director of the province's Child and Family Services. He jumped into provincial politics and was elected in 1988, along with a wave of Liberals under leader Sharon Carstairs.

Alcock next moved into federal politics, serving as Winnipeg South MP from 1993. In 2003, he became president of the Treasury Board. He was defeated by Conservative Rod Bruinooge in 2006.

Former prime minister Paul Martin said Alcock had "absolute conviction that government could better the lives of people."

Premier Greg Selinger said Alcock's "dedication to Manitoba and his commitment to public service at the provincial and federal levels was exemplary."

And provincial Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard said "Reg will be remembered as a leader and true champion for Manitobans."

Reg Alcock.

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Reg Alcock. (BRUNO SCHLUMBERGER / THE OTTAWA CITIZEN ARCHIVES)

Albert Cohen, who died at 97 on Nov. 21, was a business visionary.

Cohen and his brothers founded wholesale import company General Distributors, now Gendis, in 1939 and by 1952 it had the exclusive Canadian rights for Paper Mate pens.

But Cohen's biggest coup was when he spotted an ad in a Japanese newspaper in 1955 by a company looking for a distributor for a new portable radio.

That company was Sony and Cohen sewed up the Canadian distribution rights to all Sony products.

By 1995, that relationship had grown to Gendis selling its stake back to Sony for $207 million.

Cohen also branched the company into retail business with SAAN stores.

Cohen was honoured with both an Order of Canada and the Order of the Rising Sun for advocating a stronger economic relationship between Canada and Japan.

Fred McGuinness may be better known in Brandon and rural areas because of his legions of readers there.

McGuinness, who died on March 22 at 90, was called the voice of the Prairies when he received his Order of Canada for his decades of writing with the Brandon Sun. He started with the Medicine Hat News in 1955 and joined the Sun in 1966.

During his years at the Sun he also wrote for Reader's Digest, hosted the CBC weekly show Neighbourly News for 10 years and wrote several books. He also syndicated a weekly Neighbourly News column in rural newspapers until 2001.

Legendary CBC radio host Peter Gzowski once called McGuinness "the master of the anecdote."

Legal legend Harry Walsh is best known for his central role in having Canada abolish the death penalty in 1976.

"I never had a hanging in any case where I was the senior lawyer. We have no right to take the life of anybody," Walsh said during an interview last year.

Walsh, who died on Feb. 23 at 97, called himself the oldest working lawyer in Canada and practised law from when he was called to the bar in 1937 to the time of his passing.

Walsh was also one of the 100 people who contributed $100 apiece to create the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba.

Whether in newspapers or radio, Jack Matheson was a sports reporting icon. He was 86 when he died on Jan. 24.

Matheson, who began a 35-year newspaper career with the Winnipeg Tribune in 1946, rose to become the sports editor, a position he held until the newspaper shut down in 1980.

Switching to radio, Matheson covered the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and curling for CJOB.

Matheson was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, the Canadian Curling Hall of Fame, Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame, Manitoba Basketball Hall of Fame and the Canadian Sportswriters Hall of Fame. He also was honoured with the CFL Commissioners Award for meritorious service in 1991 and four times won the Scotty Harper Memorial award for best national curling story.

Albert Cohen

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Albert Cohen (WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES) Photo Store

Babs Asper's husband, Izzy Asper, got the majority of the publicity creating a media empire and serving as a former leader of the provincial Liberal party, but Babs was the glue that held the family together.

Asper, who died at 78 on July 30, was lauded for her down-to-earth grace. Her quiet dignity led her to actually turning down an invitation to become the province's lieutenant-governor.

She was also co-founder of the family's philanthropic arm, the Asper Foundation. She supported arts organizations, including the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre and the Manitoba Opera, but in her later years she also created the Babs Asper Professorship in Jazz Performance with a $1-million donation.

"She's someone who very, very much cared about the city," Mayor Sam Katz said.

"(She) gave back more than I think most people could ever know."

Rick Rypien was found dead in his off-season home in Coleman, Alta., on Aug. 15. The 27-year-old Winnipeg Jets forward and former member of the Vancouver Canucks had battled depression for years.

Rypien first arrived in Winnipeg in March 2005 for a tryout. He was un-drafted and was ready to pack his bags and head back to the Crowsnest Pass. But Manitoba Moose GM Craig Heisinger saw something in the 5-10, 180-pounder other scouts missed, something that couldnt be measured or weighed. Heisinger says he just provided Rypien with an opportunity -- nothing more, nothing less -- and the kid did the rest.

From the moment Rypien put on a Moose jersey, he played with an unbridled enthusiasm and fearlessness that made him an instant fan favourite.

He fought grown men eight inches taller and 50 pounds heavier. He threw thunderous bodychecks and would challenge anyone who took offence.

And he could score, too. Not surprisingly, within a year he was promoted to the parent Vancouver Canucks.

In his first game, on his first shift, Rick Rypien scored his first NHL goal.

"We were very proud of what he accomplished," Winnipeg Jets co-owner Mark Chipman said. "He was the on-ice example of what we were, what we are, what we want to be."

When the newly minted club signed the free agent this past summer, the owner could barely contain himself.

"That was one of the best days of my summer," Chipman said. "That was a fist-pumping moment. Beyond the announcement of joining the National Hockey League, for me that's what really brought it full circle. When we had one of our own come back full circle, that felt like the picture was complete."

kevin.rollason@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 31, 2011 i1

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