MILTON HARRIS, CEO AND PHILANTRHOPIST:
1927 – 2005
“Son of a scrap metal dealer, he
used his genius for business to build a $600-million
company. A family man who resolved to keep his children
out of the family business for the sake of the family,
he supported such varied causes as primate research
and the hunt for war criminals.”
BY SANDRA MARTIN
SATURDAY APRIL 2, 2005
UPDATED AT 11:23 AM EDT.
Milt Harris’s business acumen was legendary,
but it was only a small part of the man. A self-made
entrepreneur who took his family’s scrap-metal
business and turned it into a hugely successful
reinforced-steel business, he was also a crusader,
a civil libertarian, and a quiet but generous philanthropist
to a range of causes, including the YMCA, opera,
First Nations, and especially primate research and
human cognitive evolution.
Short, wiry, and athletic, Mr. Harris hated formality
and was rarely seen in a shirt and tie. As a young
man, he learned to box and to fly a single-engine
plane – until good sense and his wife persuaded
him to ground his aircraft. In recent years, he
was a committed cyclist, often riding close to 30
kilometers a day through the ravines of Toronto.
Although he couldn’t read music, he took up
the organ a dozen years ago and learned to play
toccatas, fugues, and sonatas.
Milton Harris was born in Detroit in 1927, one
of the two sons of Sam and Jenny Harris. The family
moved to London when Milt was a few months old.
His childhood was troubled because his mother was
sickly and his father tended to favor Milt’s
brother, Liebert. Fortunately, the young boy had
affectionate and supportive aunts and uncles and,
instead of being embittered by his upbringing, he
developed empathy and compassion for others.
In a eulogy for Mr. Harris, his son, David, attributed
his father’s affinity for the oppressed and
dispossessed to those early struggles. “I
think that Milt build his life in opposition and
reaction to the parenting he received and…
this explains… his most prominent character
trait: He was a fighter, a go-getter, a man of action.”
Mr. Harris grew up in the scrap-metal business,
which had been in the family since before the turn
of the century. At 13, he was driving a truck, and
working part-time for his father, his grandfather
and his uncle. The business went through good times
and bad – his father lost a fortune during
the Depression and made most of it back early in
the Second World War.
There was certainly enough money to send Milt to
St. George’s School and Central Collegiate
Institute in London and to Camp Winnebago in Ontario’s
Muskoka region for at least one summer. That’s
where Milt met Max Milstone in 1943, the year he
turned 16. The two boys became lifelong friends,
a connection that was strengthened at the University
of Toronto because they both belonged to the Beta
Sigma Rho fraternity. “He was the sharpest
man I ever knew. He had a mind like a steel trap
and he could remember everything,” Mr. Milstone
said this week.
“He was the best friend I ever had,”
he said. “A friend is somebody who can be
truly happy when something good happens to you,
and not with any jealousy or competition, but he
also felt my pain.”
It was also at the U of T that Mr. Harris met his
wife, Ethel. They knew each other socially, but
they really connected one rainy evening in 1948
when they were both studying for exams in the reference
library (now the U of T Bookstore on College Street).
“Milt walked me home and he told me later
that he knew then that he was in love with me,”
Mrs. Harris said this week. They were engaged that
September and married a year later, a partnership
that lasted more that 55 years. She is credited
with expanding his interests in the arts and encouraging
his fascination with primates and human evolution.
Milt Harris wanted to become a lawyer after graduating
with a commerce degree in 1949, but his father suffered
a heart attack, and so the young couple moved to
London and Mr. Harris took over the day-to-day running
of the family business. In 1954, he bought out his
grandfather or, more accurately, assumed the company’s
liabilities. By then, he had a new vision for the
business. He had bought a load of reinforcing steel,
detritus from the construction of the Welland Canal,
and realized that he could cut, bend and resell
it, rather than throwing it onto the scrap heap.
“That was the beginning of the rebar business,”
said nephew John Harris, who has succeeded Milt
Harris as CEO and chairman of Harris Steel.
Focused and imaginative, Milt Harris was able to
envisage the future of the steel industry and to
take advantage of it to manufacture a product that
could be used to reinforce concrete in construction
projects. In the mid-1960s, he began branching out
into other businesses, including Laurel Steel, and
took his company public in 1967. Today, Harris Steel
Group is a leading North American steel fabricator
and processor with 34 facilities in Canada and the
U.S., and annual sales in excess of $600-million.
Harris Steel is not a family business in the usual
sense. Unlike many self-made entrepreneurs, Mr.
Harris discouraged his children (Judith, Naomi and
David) from joining the company. There was a lot
of business-related conflict within his family over
the generations, according to John Harris, and he
didn’t want to inflict that on his own children.
The same stricture seemed to hold for John Harris.
“He was more than an uncle to me, he was an
idol,” he said, explaining that his parents
had divorced when he was very young and Uncle Milt
and Aunt Ethel had stepped into the emotional gap.
After John graduated with a degree in philosophy
in 1974 from Trent University, he was thinking of
taking a year off before going to law school. At
a party, his aunt “dragged me over by the
ear” to his uncle and said, “Why don’t
you give Johnny a job for a year.”
At the end of his stint, John wanted to stay with
the company. “I was working as an ironworker
out in the field. The hours were great, I had all
the overtime I wanted and huge money.” His
uncle listened, wrote the name of his biggest competitor
on a piece of paper, gave it to his nephew and said:
“Phone him. Maybe he’ll give you a job,
because if you don’t go back to school, I’m
John got the message. He went to U of T for an
MBA, continued to work for his uncle part-time for
two years and went back to the firm in the spring
of 1977. He's been there ever since.
When asked why his uncle was so successful at founding
and growing a business, John Harris said: "It
was really a matter of culture." Long before
"empowering people" became business buzz
words, his uncle always saw beyond the exterior
and saw the heart and intelligence workers brought
to their jobs. "He treated them like real people,
whether they were labourers or truck drivers or
rocket scientists and let them try to do their best."
Milt Harris had a genius for business. "He
just wanted to bring his mind and energy to the
game every day," said his nephew, adding that
he "had a tremendous mental toughness."
He brought that toughness not only to his own business,
but also as a director of other companies, including
Air Canada and Canadair.
In the early 1980s, he became involved in the Canadian
Jewish Congress, serving on its war-crimes committee
and as president from 1983 to 1986. After reading
None Is Too Many, by Irving Abella and Harold Troper,
their landmark expose of anti-Semitism in Canada,
he invited Mr. Abella to speak to the CJC- "He
was a dynamo -- single-minded, generous, energetic
and gutsy," said Mr. Abella. "He knew
what he wanted to do and how to do it."
What he wanted was to find war criminals who had
found refuge in Canada. "Although he had no
relatives that he knew of who had died in the Holocaust
and he'd had a pretty comfortable life in Canada,
he was angry that Canada had allowed people who
have committed such horrific crimes into this country,
allowed them to stay and made no pretense at prosecution,"
said Mr. Abella. "His sense of justice and
his sense of the values this country represents
At the time, Jim Peterson, now Minister of International
Trade in Paul Martin's cabinet, was parliamentary
secretary to then justice minister Jean Chretien.
Mr. Peterson worked closely with Mr. Harris, arranging
for him to meet senior Justice Department officials.
"He did as much, or more, as anybody in Canada
to advance the cause of bringing war criminals to
In her eulogy, Mrs. Harris described her husband
as someone who was "never afraid to stand alone
for what he believed, never afraid to fight for
the underprivileged and the scapegoated or against
any violation of human rights." As CJC president,
for example, he supported the right of Palestinians
to a homeland. Later, he campaigned on behalf of
Japanese Canadians seeking redress for being interned
and having their homes and assets confiscated during
the Second World War. "He took on causes that
were his and not necessarily the community's,"
said Mr. Abella, "so he was often fighting
solitary battles, but the right ones."
A big supporter of the Liberal Party, he was the
campaign manager when Clarence Peterson (father
of former Ontario premier David Peterson) ran against
John Robarts in the 1963 Ontario election. In that
pre-cellphone era, Mr. Harris invented a concept
called home centres for election days. The idea
was to place election workers away from headquarters
in houses close to the polls, recalled Jim Peterson,
Clarence's son. This practice was later adopted
by the party on a much wider scale.
Mr. Harris never ran for office himself, but he
publicly denounced the Liberal Party for its anti-free-trade
stand against the U.S. in the 1988 federal election.
"He phoned me and said he could not, in principle,
support a party that had always supported free trade
and wouldn't in these circumstances," said
Jim Peterson. "When we later endorsed free
trade, he came back to us," adding: "He
was right." About five years ago, Mr. Harris
phoned York University president Lorna Marsden,
an acquaintance from the Liberal Party and their
days sitting on the board of Air Canada, and invited
her to talk to him about the university's research
projects. One of the qualities Dr. Marsden always
appreciated about Mr. Harris was his low-key style.
"He had conversations, he didn't lecture you,"
Since that telephone conversation, he quietly financed
scholarships for francophone students to study at
the university's bilingual Glendon campus. He also
became heavily involved in funding research into
brain development in humans, an outgrowth of his
long-time interest in and support of anthropologist
Jane Goodall's work with primates.
"His gifts were such involved philanthropy.
He wanted to be there and talk to the people,"
said Ms. Marsden. "That's an incredible gift
to a faculty member to have somebody who is interested
in their research, understands their research and
The energetic and fit Mr. Harris was complaining
of a stomach ache before he and his wife headed
to their Florida home a month ago. He became progressively
sicker and was diagnosed three weeks ago with a
rare and aggressive form of abdominal cancer. His
family gathered around him, making the last week
of his life a very emotional time. “He loved
his family and he made sure each of them knew it”,
said Mrs. Harris.
Milton Harris was born in Detroit on July 26,1927.
He died on March 26 of cancer. He was 77. He is
survived by his wife, Ethel, his children Judith,
Naomi and David, his nephew John, his cousin Marcia
and their families.
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