About five years ago, Floyd Chalmers unexpectedly didn’t show up at his Maclean Hunter office. Pat Harding, who had been his faithful
secretary for 10 years, considered his absence unusual enough that she decided to visit his downtown Toronto apartment to see what the problem might be.
She arrived just before noon and found him still lounging in bed, though apparently feeling fit and rested. When Harding asked Chalmers why he wasn’t getting up, he looked at her ruefully and, pointing to the room’s walls crammed with diplomas, medals and plaques honoring his achievements, snapped: “Why should I? I’ve done everything there is to do.”
If any man could lay claim to such a unique distinction, it was Floyd Sherman Chalmers, who died last week at 94. His six decades in publishing and especially his creative leadership in that rarest of Canadian activities, personal philanthropy, set new personal-best standards—his own.
I knew Chalmers first as a boss and later as a friend for more than three decades, but what I remember best was our first meeting. Fresh out of university with no visible work prospects, I had read a guidebook about how to get a job and for some reason was struck
by the suggestion that the best way to demonstrate a sense of responsibility was to wear a fedora, the hat popular in the 1950s. This advice puzzled me because at every job interview, I was asked to park my hat and coat before facing my prospective employers. I quickly decided that the reason I wasn’t being hired was obvious: nobody knew I wore a hat. When Floyd Chalmers agreed to see me about a junior opening on The Financial Post, I was determined not to repeat my mistake and, after wrestling his assistant for my headgear, proudly laid it on his desk, right under his nose. Chalmers looked down at the hat, glanced at me, then eyed the hat again, not certain whether to feel more baffled by my obvious lack of jour-
nalistic qualifications or disconcerted by what he must have interpreted as my inability to find a hall closet. For some reason we clicked when I earnestly explained the presence of the hat, and he hired me—at $186 a month. I’ve worn a hat ever since.
As he did for so many young people, Floyd Chalmers took a chance and gave me an opportunity to see where my own efforts would lead. (At a public celebration of his 90th birthday, about 800 individuals and 250 organizations in various branches of Canada’s cultural endeavors were listed as beneficiaries of the Chalmers generosity.)
Bom in Chicago, Chalmers spent most of his childhood with his paternal grandparents in Potsdam, N.Y. His grandmother, as he later recalled, was “a strict and bitter woman” who forbade him to read books. His only literary escape was in his aunt’s attic, where he devoured Horatio Alger books, taking to heart their message of business success through hard work and high principles. He eventually moved to Orillia, Ont., and left high school at 18 for an apprentice reporter’s job at the Toronto News. He later switched to
a $30-a-week job on The Financial Post, which had a circulation of 4,000 and a news staff of 2.5 (one reporter doubled as an ad salesman). In 1921, Floyd married Jean Boxall, a former Post secretary, and, at 27, became the paper’s editor-manager.
Chalmers spent more than she decades with Maclean Hunter (publisher of Maclean’s), nearly half that time in charge of its operations. Its founders (Col. John B. Maclean and Horace Hunter) gave the company the imprint of their names, but it was Chalmers who contributed the editorial perceptions that raised the small Toronto publishing house into a national institution. He began to accumulate stock when he joined the MH board in 1938 and eventually owned 22 per cent. The accelerating value of those shares triggered his philanthropic activities. Part of Chalmers’s attraction to cultural pursuits flowed from his feelings of intellectual inadequacy as a high-school dropout. (When, as chancellor of
York University in Toronto, Chalmers was offered an honorary degree, he chose a BA— the only honorary undergraduate degree ever awarded by a Canadian university.) Along with his wife, Jean, and his daughter, Joan, he became Canada’s cultural patron saint, not so much because he gave his money away but because he donated his time, his considerable organizational abilities and his impressive contacts with Canada’s moneyed classes. Chalmers became co-founder of the Canadian Opera Company and the Stratford Shakespearean Festival as well as sponsoring dozens of awards, grants and prizes in theatre, opera, music and dance. His grandest gesture was to donate $10 million in the form of Maclean Hunter stock to 16 arts organizations in the fall of 1989. (By valuing the shares, then selling on the market at $13, at $1 apiece, which had been their worth when capital gains taxes were introduced in 1971,
Chalmers was able to pass on the full $10 million donation tax-free.)
Floyd Chalmers listed his politics as “independent” and, although he seemed a crusty conservative, he was also radical in the sense of wanting to speed up the processes of change and reform. He was enormously proud of a clipping from the York student newspaper that referred to him as Pink Floyd. That’s probably as good a way to remember him as any: one of those rare Establishment figures who realized that men and women lose their chance for creative expression only when they’ve given up their quest—and that at times they require a push in the right direction. Even when those pesky upstarts stick a hat under your nose.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.