Jack Rabinovitch (left) with Moses Znaimer—photo by Tom Sandler

Tonight marks the gala event for the 2017 Scotiabank Giller Prize, and we remember the man who brought Canadian literature to the forefront when he founded the prestigious literary prize—but his success professionally isn't what colleagues and friends remember most about the late Jack Rabinovitch.

"I think the greatest legacy is Jack's gift of love and friendship." I was surprised when I heard those words in former Ontario premier Bob Rae's eulogy for Jack Rabinovitch. Not that I doubted Jack's capacity for profound relationships. But as a successful businessman and philanthropist he had so many accomplishments of a more concrete kind.

He founded the Giller Prize (later known as the Scotiabank Giller Prize), which glamourized Canadian literature, and he was instrumental in building the Princess Margaret Hospital (now the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre) on University Avenue in Toronto. I had never heard about that latter endeavour until the funeral – ironic given my connection to the institution.

I have often learned wonderful things about friends and acquaintances at their funerals. Note to self: take more time to know people outside the particular box where you encounter them. And, as the song says, do it "In the living years."

I used to attend concerts my late neighbour Anatol Rapoport held at his home. He was a retired mathematician, and brilliant. Yet, until his memorial, I had no idea that he had served in U.S. intelligence in the war, returned to become one of the originators of game and conflict theories and created the "sit-in" at the University of Michigan in the '60s.

I knew Jack mostly as the host of the lavish awards dinner for the Giller Prize. He hatched the idea with his lifelong friend, the iconic Canadian writer Mordecai Richler, as a tribute to his second wife, the literary journalist Doris Giller. My husband Doug and I were his guests for 19 years, not by virtue of any contribution I may have made, but because my brother Moses was the first broadcaster to televise the Gillers. Jack had that kind of appreciation for family. I remember my excitement at receiving the beautiful black invitation with a red rose attached. This was the party of the season, a lot of people wanted to go, and they weren't ashamed to say so. For the first few seasons, the RSVP line carried a message for wannabes – the party was for Jack's friends and anyone who hadn't received that coveted delivery wasn't getting on the guest list. It was all part of the strategy to create a buzz around CanLit.

The prize also boosted sales to the point that the industry coined the term "The Giller Effect." Next month will mark the first Scotiabank Giller gala without Jack. It's hard to imagine, but the event has become an institution. "A lot of people launch things – ideas, charities and movements – and they don't go anywhere," Moses observed. "And this thing that Jack planted is here to stay."

Will I leave anything that lasts? Much as we focus on remembering the dead to comfort the living, a funeral is also an opportunity for reflection and introspection, maybe even correction. I'm sure it's very bad form to think of yourself, to compare, at a time like that. I'm also sure most everyone does.

At the Shiva – the traditional Jewish mourning week following a death – I asked Bob Rae about the hospital project. He was Ontario's premier at the time and the proposal crossed his desk, with Jack to push it forward. Doris had died of cancer and this was his first tribute to her. He was a very successful developer and as such took on the volunteer job of head of the building committee on the Princess Margaret Foundation board. Bob explained that there was no room to expand the existing facility at the old Sherbourne Street location. But there were complicated issues around the University Avenue Hydro site. Several members of his cabinet, including the then-health minister were opposed. Rae overruled them but it was Jack who overcame the trickier hurdle of opposition from the city. He proceeded to bring the project in under budget.

So there it is – a legacy in both concrete and culture. I knew Jack only peripherally. Aside from the gala, there was an annual tennis tournament we both played in and the occasional gathering at his home, the occasional party at ours. He could be gruff and around him I always felt more like a green kid than a contemporary. But I look up to him as an example of a life well-lived.

"I came to love his ability to make and keep friends," Bob Rae said in the eulogy. "That to me is his legacy above all else." And to me, that is the thing I hope I can live up to.

A version of this article appeared in the October 2017 issue with the headline "Reflecting On Jack," p. 32. 

Find out how to tune into the gala event live tonight at 8PM.

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