Don Rix, a man regarded as a giant in British Columbia’s technology and biotech sectors, died Friday, leaving a philanthropic legacy that will live on in institutions, programs and initiatives he was instrumental in launching across many sectors.
Rix, who was predeceased by his wife Eleanor, died at age 78 following a long illness.
He was known and admired as a leader and a mentor to many.
“Don was a giant,” said Darcy Rezac, the Vancouver Board of Trade’s managing director. “He was a role model to everybody in business, and in the broader community as well.
“He was a consummate volunteer, an engaged community leader. He was a philanthropist and a model corporate citizen.
“It is a sad day for us.”
Many philanthropists’ good deeds are on display for all to see, from their names emblazoned on buildings to foundations, awards and other very public offerings.
Rix’s philanthropy is similarly known, but he was also responsible for many acts of kindness and charity that he carried out far from the spotlights of black-tie dinners and press photos.
Mark Schonfeld, chief executive officer of the BC Medical Association, first met Rix when he was a medical student at the University of BC and Rix was a clinical instructor.
“He was just a great guy. He was a great humanitarian, a mentor, educator, physician and leader,” said Schonfeld. “He was the kind of person you really looked up to and you learned tons from him.
“We have lost a great Canadian, not just a great British Columbian.”
Schonfeld said Rix used to say, if you do something for yourself — like go fishing — you enjoy it for a day; if you do something for the community, it lasts forever.
Schonfeld said Rix helped people on a personal basis, in ways that no one ever knew about.
He helped bring back a program to help medical students who were facing financial difficulties, and Schonfeld said even when cases didn’t qualify for the assistance, Rix found a way to help.
“A young med student who develops a terrible illness and had no ability for support — Don would provide the support and funding to pay rent and sustenance. If somebody was having marital difficulties or other problems, he’d find a way of digging in his own pocket and providing money for them,” said Schonfeld.
A doctor, an entrepreneur and a philanthropist, Rix had a string of honours from the Order of Canada, to the Order of British Columbia, honourary degrees, and many commendations. But he was not just a cheque-book philanthropist, according to people who knew him.
And his focus wasn’t limited to the medical field, to business, innovation in biotechnology and technology, or even education — all areas where he has had a significant impact in B.C. It could be homelessness, children’s health — or fate of a courier who worked for his company.
Rezac remembers how the courier who was delivering to one of Rix’s medical laboratories was killed on the Oak Street Bridge, a victim of a motorist who strayed across the centre line and hit his van head on. Rezac said Rix lobbied to have a median put on the bridge to save others from the same fate. He quietly helped the victim’s family, the man’s widow and child, who Rezac said is now going to university on a scholarship Rix set up.
Rix began his medical career as a GP with a practice on West 10th Ave., down the street from the university where he has devoted much time and money.
UBC President Stephen Toope recalls arriving in B.C. just over three years ago and asking people who he should talk to for a sense of what was going on in the province, Rix’s name came up again and again.
“I think it was a testament to the incredible influence he has in so many ways,” said Toope. “In the medical profession, in business, in philanthropy, in education — he just popped up in everything.”
Toope said Rix always wanted the best for society, with a philanthropy not just about giving money away, but donating in a very strategic way.
“He and I think his family look to where they can really make a difference — it is thoughtful, it is considered, and he always links it to his own personal engagement. The thing about Don is not just that he gives money away, he gives so generously of himself,” Toope said in an interview for a profile I was writing on Rix before his health took a final turn for the worse.
Last May, Rix and his daughter Laurie Macrae donated $2.5 million to UBC to create the first professorship in rural teacher education. It was named the Eleanor Rix professorship in honour of Rix’s wife of 49 years, a former teacher who died in September, 2007.
It was only one of his many contributions to the university that total almost $9.5 million. The money has gone to the Rix Bursary in Medicine and the BC Leadership Chair in Early Childhood Development, as well as UBC Athletics, the Michael Smith Memorial Fellowship, and the Program Office for Laboratory Management.
All that despite early days when as Toope recounted, the institution didn’t always stand behind Rix. The UBC president recalled a story Rix told at an event to honour Rix’s contributions to the university.
“He told a story about how when he first came here he was a doctor in our student health service,” said Toope. “He was involved in a controversy about the provision of birth control to students. He was approaching this as a medical doctor, and he wanted to make sure the kids who were going to be sexually active had opportunities to protect themselves.
“It actually generated blowback in the community, and he was not widely supported by the leadership of the university.
“I think they hung him out to dry, but he didn’t take it personally. Instead, he spent the next 40 years working to help the university.”
Schonfeld described Rix as being tireless, even as he cared for his wife through her sickness and coped with ill health himself.
“I have never seen anybody so committed. Don was not someone who gives up,” he said, shortly before Rix’s health took a final turn for the worst.
At an age when most people would be long into retirement, Rix, who was a pioneer in B.C.’s biotech sector, chairman of LifeLabs Diagnostics Inc. (a province-wide healthcare facility with more than 80 laboratories) and chairman of Cantest Ltd. (an environmental and industrial testing lab he acquired in 1974), took over as chairman of the Vancouver Board of Trade, a position which he held until his one-year term ended last June.