John Paris Bickell’s life began with loss. But it would never hold him back.
Born in Molesworth, Ont., and raised in Toronto, Bickell, most commonly known as J.P. or Jack, would grow up to run his own brokerage firm by 23, become a millionaire before 30, serve as an owner and director of the Toronto Maple Leafs — spearheading the construction of Maple Leaf Gardens — and contribute significantly to the war effort.
His influence touched the mining, banking and movie industries in Canada and his philanthropy profoundly impacted medical research and children’s health for years to come. Yet for Bickell, household name status never quite came, even in death.
“If anybody in Canada has owned gold, silver, flown in a plane, been in a sporting event, been in a hospital or benefited from medical research, been in a movie theatre, you have been touched by J.P. Bickell,” says Graham MacLachlan, who co-authored a book published in September titled J.P. Bickell: The Life, the Leafs and the Legacy.
MacLachlan, a first cousin to Bickell twice removed, spent years researching his distant relative, who never married nor had children of his own. From hockey to mining to philanthropy and beyond, he was struck by the number of distinct industries he so prominently influenced in the early 20th century.
“I just kept saying this can’t be the same guy because it’s too remarkable,” MacLachlan said. “The whole story’s ridiculous. It just goes on and on.”
Born in 1884, Bickell was 6 years old when his father, David Bickell Sr., died of inflammation of the intestines and abdomen at age 35. Two years later, his younger brother, David Jr., died. He was four years old.
His elder brother, James, would die five years later at the age of 14 of appendicitis, leaving 13-year-old J.P., his mother Annie and baby sister Marjorie. As the man of the house, Bickell got to work.
After graduating from St. Andrew’s College and working on the floors of the grain exchange in Chicago, Bickell established his own financial brokerage Business in 1907, trading on behalf of big American spenders.
He sold his firm in 1919 (but would remain active in the sector, becoming a senior partner in New York brokerage firm Thomson McKinnon in 1926) to focus on his mining interests, having invested in McIntyre Porcupine Mines Ltd. in Schumacher, Ont., in 1911.
Bickell made much of his fortune serving as president and later chairman of the gold mine. It earned him a place in the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame. Under Bickell’s leadership, the 25-hectare (64-acre) McIntyre mine grew to about 580 hectares (1,436 acres). Total production was valued at $230 million between 1912 and 1955, and by the time of Bickell’s death in 1951, shareholders had been paid more than $62 million in dividends.
“Everything the man touched literally turned to gold,” MacLachlan says.
Like many mining magnates of his time, Bickell added hockey to his portfolio. Along with Nathan Nathanson, with whom he would help establish and run the Famous Players movie theatre chain, Bickell at age 40, led a partnership that purchased the Toronto St. Patricks hockey team.
MacLachlan contends that the mythology surrounding the club oversells the role of Conn Smythe, who Bickell brought aboard a few years later, and undersells that of Bickell. At Bickell’s direction, the two would fend off a Philadelphia group trying to purchase and relocate the team by arranging for additional financial backing.
For Bickell, who would serve as majority owner, president, chairman and director of the team for the rest of his life, being part of seven Stanley Cups along the way, the venture was a matter of civic pride.
“He was all about civic duty and he was a sportsman,” MacLachlan says. “He was supposedly the largest taxpayer in Canada for a number of years, and he’s quoted as saying he was happy and proud to pay his taxes. He was such a Canadian patriot. Everything involved the Maple Leaf.”
Under his leadership, the team was rebranded the Toronto Maple Leafs, and soon moved into a glamorous new arena called Maple Leaf Gardens. Bickell had called in favours to accumulate the $900,000 needed to fund the new building, for which he was appointed its first president.
“You could say, without exaggerating, that Bickell was the cornerstone of the whole project,” Smythe would tell Toronto Daily Star sportswriter Milt Dunnell, following Bickell’s death.
Bickell, or “Smiling Jack” as he was nicknamed, didn’t stop at hockey. He’d serve as a friend and confidante to Ontario Premier Michell Hepburn, board member of the Wellesley Hospital and director of the Canadian Bank of Commerce (now CIBC), Art Gallery of Toronto (now Art Gallery of Ontario), National Trust Company (now Scotiabank) and International Nickel Company of Canada. Later in life, he helped establish aircraft manufacturer A.V. Roe Canada.
During the Second World War, he worked as a “dollar-a-year man” and formed the “Four Busy B’s” in England, along with Lord Beaverbrook, former Canadian prime minister R.B. Bennett and Beverly Baxter. Bickell’s role focused on moving aircraft from factories to airfields, a job key to stopping Hitler’s goal of invading the United Kingdom. Bickell also served as president of Victory Aircraft, which constructed and delivered Lancaster bombers to the Allies.
The final act of an illustrious life not only played into Bickell’s pride as a Canadian, but also paid tribute to his late brothers and father.
Upon his death, a $13 million bequeathal established the J.P. Bickell Foundation, which since its inception has generated more than $160 million for charitable grants. His “true passion” being children and health research, nearly half of that sum has gone to the Hospital for Sick Children, helping to establish a research institute.
“If you think of Sick Kids Hospital, you have to think J.P. Bickell,” MacLachlan says. “It was really to honour his family.”
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Source : TheStar