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Remembering Donald Sobey

Donald Sobey, BCom’57, LLD’16, was a great supporter of education at Smith and Queen’s. Most important of all, he was a true friend to students.
Donald Sobey  at Convocation in May 2016, when he received his honorary Queen’s degree.

Growing up, Donald Sobey spent his Saturday nights bagging potatoes and chopping cabbage in his family’s grocery store in New Glasgow, N.S. But after high school, he wanted to attend university. Which one though? A family friend who’d gone to Royal Military College in Kingston suggested Queen’s. It was a terrific university, the friend noted, with one of the best business schools in the country. So began a lifelong connection with Smith School of Business and Queen’s University.

Sobey, who supported several major scholarships and initiatives at Smith that have benefited generations of students—both in school and beyond—died on March 24. He was 86 years old.

“Donald Sobey made a tremendous impact on Canadian business, yet he never forgot his Queen’s roots,” says vice-principal (advancement) Karen Bertrand, Artsci’94. “His generosity funded many scholarships and created incredible opportunities for students to flourish and succeed.”     

When he arrived at Queen’s in 1953, Sobey was one of only two students from Atlantic Canada. Years later, he noted that Smith had prepared him for business more than he realized. And he spoke fondly of his university experience. “The move to Ontario was an eye-opener,” he recalled in an interview several years ago. “And getting to know people from all over Canada was really something.”

In 1998, he committed millions of dollars to ensure students from Atlantic Canada could have the same opportunity he had at Queen’s. In honour of his and son Rob’s, Artsci’88, Queen’s experience, he created the D&R Sobey Atlantic Scholarship, which each year funds up to eight Atlantic Canadian high-school students entering the Commerce program for their four years. There have been 131 recipients, or Sobey Scholars, since then, and nearly $6.6 million has been distributed in scholarships (up to April last year). Every year, the father and son returned to Queen’s campus to host a traditional East Coast lobster supper and meet with their award recipients.

Commerce program executive director Lori Garnier, AMBA’08, recalls her first time attending the dinner. “Meeting Don and experiencing his kindness, generosity and care toward the students showed that the Sobey scholarship was more than its name. It was an opportunity to create a family that would support and guide those who were part of it. Don had great admiration and respect for each student, and he appreciated the opportunity to make a difference for each of them.”

Students and alumni especially remember how Sobey inspired them and how much he cared about students. “Don was an incredible man whom I will remember for his authenticity and warm demeanour,” says Anna Wall, BCom’16. “He created opportunities for learning, growth and friendship that could not have been achieved otherwise.”

Rob Marsh, BCom’07, adds: “If not for Don, I would not have had the chance to attend Queen’s University. I often think about how that opportunity, that turning point, had such a profound impact on my life. It was because of him that I enjoyed a university experience and a life thus far beyond my wildest dreams.”

Sobey also influenced Canadian business. After graduation, he returned home to Nova Scotia and joined his family’s grocery business. He helped build Sobeys into one of the largest supermarket retailers in the country. In 1963, he was appointed to the board of Empire Company Limited (Sobeys’ parent). He became president in 1969 and chairman in 1985, retiring in 2004. Three years later, the Canadian Business Hall of Fame inducted him, and, in 2014, he was appointed to the Order of Canada.

In 2008, Sobey gave back to Smith again, establishing the Donald R. Sobey Professorship to support research by a Smith faculty member. (It’s currently held by professor of international business Anthony Goerzen.) And when the pandemic hit last year, he was one of the first philanthropists to support a project led by Queen’s Professor Emeritus and Nobel Prize winner Art McDonald to design an easy-to-build ventilator that can
help treat COVID-19 patients. Sobey made his donation less than 24 hours after McDonald, a fellow Maritimer, called to ask for his help.

In 2016, Queen’s gave Sobey an honorary degree. Afterward, he reflected on the Sobey Scholars. “I’m really proud [of them],” he said. “They are amazing young people, and you can see the country is in pretty good hands.”