The largest bequest to a single charity in B.C.'s history has come from a European immigrant who pledged in his will to hand over equity in his massive Burnaby commercial real estate development.
More than 20 years after his death, John Jambor, a Slovakian self-made multimillionaire, has stayed true to his pledge, leaving the BC Cancer Foundation $21.4 million in a deal which represents the value of a city block of mixed retail, commercial and office space.
The gift arranged by Jambor's protege and grandson, William McCarthy, is the biggest to go to a B.C. cancer cause and the largest to go to a single organization in the province.
"It's quite rare for people to structure a bequest this way but John's intent was very clear," said foundation president Doug Nelson. "He wanted to ensure that the property and the business appreciated over time so that when we finally received the funds, the legacy would be even more substantial," he added.
"The gift isn't restrictive. We can use it for the areas of greatest need which means that while research is the main focus, if we need money for equipment, programs, or capital purposes, we could use the funds that way too," said Nelson, adding that money from the estate will be received over a few years.
As is often the case, the foundation will distribute the amount generated as income from the principal of the gift - expected to be about $750,000 a year. In the last year, the foundation has raised about $50 million for research. That does not include a similar amount researchers have garnered through competitive grants.
Dr. Sam Abraham, vice-president of research at the BC Cancer Agency, which is supported by the BC Cancer Foundation, said the Jambor/McCarthy gift will be used to "underwrite our future."
Jambor died in 1991 at the age of 89, after suffering a stroke, but he became committed to cancer research when his first wife was stricken with stomach and colon cancer, which led to her death in 1970. In the 1980s, Jambor was diagnosed with a tumour in his jaw. The organization and high level of care he received from the BC Cancer Agency so impressed him that he decided - while undergoing treatment - to designate a substantial gift in his estate.
The value of his legacy is remarkable, considering that when Jambor came to Canada in 1928, he had $14.02 in his pocket and toiled at various jobs - in a paper mill, as a steamship travel agent and as a translator, since he was multilingual. In 1932, he opened a convenience store in Noranda, Que.
"My grandparents had been living in Toronto and the newspapers were full of stories about a mine expansion in Quebec so he went there looking for work," said McCarthy.
"My grandfather was stocky and strong, but the European men being hired were much bigger. So my grandfather decided he'd open a convenience store right outside the gates of the mine. He stocked all the candy, pipe tobacco, newspapers and other products from countries these labourers and miners were familiar with. My grandparents lived above the store and it prospered so much that he was able to invest in real estate and think about retirement in his mid-40s."
Jambor moved to B.C. with his family in 1948, building a flourishing career in real estate sales and development. He donated $1 million to the cancer agency in 1970, after his wife Joan died. He decided his 5000 Kingsway Plaza site in Burnaby would also be turned over one day.
Securing the bequest involved a complicated transaction in which the property changed hands - from McCarthy to the cancer foundation and then back to McCarthy, but only on paper. Independent appraisers evaluated the site and the cancer foundation ended up with a sum that was equal to the net value (after mortgages and other costs). "This is a great story about a family that has been committed to making a powerful commitment to cancer research and education in B.C.," said the cancer foundation's Nelson.
After his grandfather died, McCarthy said he added to the site by buying up surrounding lots and consolidating them into one gigantic, four-acre parcel that comprises banks, stores, offices and health care clinics.
"It was still under development when he died but I would say the value has increased by about 550 per cent since then, if you include the consolidated properties," he said.
Jambor was a publicity-shy man who would have been embarrassed about the attention around the gift, said McCarthy. He lived by the credo: "Work hard, live well, give back" and he viewed Canada as a country full of bounty and beauty, a place where hard work equalled rewards.
After Jambor's death, McCarthy recalled in a 1991 interview a story his grandfather told him about when he arrived in New Brunswick on a steamship in 1928. Immigrants to Canada received a bag of food as they disembarked, including a loaf of white bread.
"Where he came from, dark rye bread was eaten. White bread was saved for special occasions like birthdays or weddings. He couldn't believe such delicacies would be so readily available. He knew right away that this country was special."
Years later, when Jambor decided to move west for "retirement" he drove to B.C. from Quebec only eight days after getting a driver's license.
It was winter and when he got to the Fraser Valley, he saw cows grazing on green grass. The splendour convinced him to start building a legacy in B.C., one from which future cancer patients will benefit.