Remembering Donald Sobey, a business titan and stalwart supporter of Dal and higher education

- March 26, 2021

Donald Sobey, left, stands with Dal's Dr. Sultan Darvesh, an Alzheimer's disease researcher. (Provided photo).
Donald Sobey, left, stands with Dal's Dr. Sultan Darvesh, an Alzheimer's disease researcher. (Provided photo).

Donald Sobey (LLD’89), C.M., an influential business leader, celebrated philanthropist and unwavering supporter of Dalhousie for more than three decades, died Wednesday (March 24). He was 86.

Campus flags have been lowered in respect.

“I’m deeply saddened by Donald Sobey’s passing,” said The Honourable Scott Brison, Dalhousie’s chancellor. “His wisdom, kindness and generosity will be sorely missed.”

From Stellarton, N.S., Sobey was well known for his modesty and people-centred leadership — qualities that helped him stand out in the world of Canadian corporate titans.

A graduate of Queen’s University in 1957, Sobey believed deeply in the transformational power of education — a commitment that never wavered throughout his life. He created scholarships at multiple post-secondary institutions, hoping some would reach young people who would not otherwise have had the opportunity to continue their education.

Leadership with a legacy

The son of Frank H. Sobey, founder of the grocery store chain Sobeys, the younger Sobey was president of Empire Company Ltd., the chain’s parent company, from 1969 until he was appointed chair in 1985. During that time, he played a key role in expanding the regional supermarket into a national chain. He became chair emeritus in 2004. His corporate and charitable board roles included serving as chairman of the National Gallery of Canada and Maritime Tel & Tel, and as director of the World Wildlife Fund.

At Dalhousie, Sobey served on the Board of Governors from 1997–2001, chaired the Campaign for Dalhousie in the 1980s and was honorary chair from 2009–2012 of the Bold Ambitions Campaign Leadership Council (Atlantic Region). His exceptional generosity to Dalhousie included financial support for the Campaign for Dalhousie, the Computer Science Building Fund (1990s) and the Dalhousie Art Gallery. Recently, Sobey contributed funds essential to creation of the Restorative Lab in the Faculty of Law.

“The legacy Donald leaves at Dalhousie will have a profound impact on our campus, research, faculties and students for years — even generations — to come,” Dal President Deep Saini said in a memo to Dalhousie’s community.

Supporting sciences and the arts

In 2011, the Sobey Fund for Oceans at Dalhousie — a partnership between the Donald R. Sobey Family Foundation, Dalhousie’s Marine Affairs Program (MAP) and World Wildlife Fund Canada — was struck. It “truly reflected Mr. Sobey’s commitment to protecting our oceans for future generations,” said Professor Emerita Lucia Fanning, who was MAP director at the time.

"[Donald Sobey’s] generosity has provided scholarships for a generation of graduate students (20 to date) and will continue to do so in perpetuity to what he [Sobey] termed ‘tomorrow’s leaders,’ ” said Fanning. “With his generous support, innovative ideas have come to fruition over the past decade, ideas he was convinced were needed to rebuild healthy and sustainable marine ecosystems for all."

Sobey was also a passionate collector and promoter of Canadian art alongside his son, Rob Sobey. Donald Sobey chaired the Sobey Art Foundation which, in 2002, created the Sobey Art Award, considered to be one of Canada’s most prestigious award for emerging artists.

He received many awards in his lifetime. Sobey became a Member of the Order of Canada in 2013 for his philanthropy and entrepreneurism. He also received the Queen’s Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012) and was inducted into the Canadian Business Hall of Fame with his brother, David Sobey, in 2007. Donald and David Sobey accepted the Retail Council of Canada’s Canadian Grocery Industry Grand Prix Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019 on behalf of their family.

‘A wonderful friend’

Brison is grateful he and Sobey had the chance to work together in the interests of their community and society through Dalhousie. Brison particularly notes Donald and David Sobey’s creation of the Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation’s Irene MacDonald Sobey Endowed Chair in Curative Approaches to Alzheimer’s Disease as an example of Donald’s commitment to improving the lives of others.

“I have warm memories of Don as a stellar travel companion,” said Brison, remarking that Sobey’s dry sense of humour helped enliven trips they took together to represent the World Economic Forum and Trilateral Commission of North America. “He was a wonderful friend.”

Sobey leaves behind his wife, Beth, three children and five grandchildren. Due to Covid-19, private services are by invitation only. A celebration of life will follow in the future.


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