He lived long enough to see the Olympic flame lit in Athens, but not long enough to see it arrive in Vancouver. Jack Wilson Poole, the chairman of the Vancouver Organizing Committee, died in Vancouver in the early hours of October 23, 2009. He was 76. This profile originally ran in July 2009.
IT WAS THE ONLY MOMENT in his life when Jack Poole questioned whether the challenge he faced was simply too daunting. The one time when he needed to hear the pep talk rather than give it.
It was September 2007, and the developer and chairman of VANOC was a patient at Virginia Mason Medical Centre, a Seattle hospital. Poole had recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the deadliest of all forms of the disease. The survival rate is less than five per cent. Virginia Mason is known for a treatment protocol that combines heavy blasts of radiation and chemotherapy – a therapy so radical it’s not offered in Canada. But it boasts a survival rate of 55 per cent.
“They give you radiation every day for 40 days,” says Poole, at his downtown Vancouver office overlooking Burrard Inlet. “And they give you chemo three times a week on top of it. It puts you on your knees.”
He was sick to his stomach every day, violently heaving. Halfway through his stay, he developed an infection. He lost 30 pounds. Friends who came to visit him, including his partner at Concert Properties Ltd., David Podmore, and VANOC CEO John Furlong, barely recognized the man they had come to know and care for so deeply. “After getting through the infection, I was pretty weak and I said to the oncologist, ‘Is there a case to be made here for just saying enough’s enough?’” the 76-year-old Poole recalls. “He said, ‘Listen, we’re playing for big stakes. You’ll get through this, I promise. We’re not going to quit.’”
Poole didn’t, and months later – back home in the Olympic spotlight, back in the arms of those he loved – he got the best news he could receive: he was cancer-free. If he’s still cancer-free when he goes in for his checkup this month, there is an 80 per cent chance he’s cured. “There is a part of the whole experience that is exciting, believe it or not,” he says, offering a wry smile. “It’s a fight and it has to hurt. Every time you win something, it has to hurt a bit, doesn’t it?”
Jack Poole is a man who’s won more often than he’s lost. Today he stands atop the Vancouver establishment, a legendary builder and businessman with some of the most impressive corporate connections in the city. His close friends are many and include everyone from Premier Gordon Campbell to Canaccord Capital chairman Peter Brown to construction magnate Hugh Magee, and he engenders a fierce loyalty among them all. Poole’s chairmanship of VANOC will likely be the final entry in one of the most impressive work resumés in the country. That is why, with the Olympics closing in, it’s a perfect time to take a closer look at what has been an extraordinary life.
THERE IS PROBABLY no better place to start than Mortlach, Saskatchewan (population 254), where Poole grew up in a house with no indoor plumbing or running water and no electricity. He was a Depression baby, born on April 14, 1933, to Edith and John Poole. John was a grain dealer who gave his son almost five per cent Cree blood and a Métis status of which he would be forever proud.
Poole idolized his parents, even his alcoholic father, who ruined many a Christmas by getting drunk before noon. But away from the bottle, John Poole instilled in his son two important values: don’t be quick to judge others, and live your life with integrity. He regularly bathed his son in praise, which helped build a high self-esteem not common among children of alcoholics.
Jack Poole and his two older siblings went to the same two-room school from Grades 1 to 12. He enjoys telling others that he graduated second in his class; there were only two in it (he finished behind classmate Helen Forbes). The younger Poole developed into a big, strapping kid and a promising hockey defenceman. His father, and others, told him he had NHL potential. But then, when he was 15, everything changed.
Poole was working on a highway paving crew for the summer outside Lloydminster. The construction camp was a few miles from town. One night Poole and a few friends decided to walk to the big city for a little fun. It was dark. Sixty years later, Poole still recalls the sound of the car engine and a fan turning. He turned in time to see a silver fender. Next thing he knew, he was in a ditch.
“I looked down at my leg and there was just skin holding it on,” says Poole matter-of-factly. “My right foot was turned at a right angle. I was covered in gravel. My immediate thought was, ‘That’s the end of hockey.’ Meantime, my best friend, Bert Kilbach, was lying on the ground in horrible shape. The car’s hood ornament went in his back and out through his chest. He got killed, I got broken and the other two got off scot-free. It was a lesson in what can happen in life, how your life can change in just a flash.”
That next year, Poole would learn that his high school girlfriend, Marilyn Pollock, was pregnant. The young couple quickly got married, giving birth to a girl named Gwen; another girl, named Anne, would follow two years later. By this time, Poole had enrolled in civil engineering at the University of Saskatchewan. Poole had worked on construction sites since the age of 14. The dust from job sites got in his blood. For him there was nothing quite like it, and when he went to school there was no question what he wanted to do: get educated so he could one day run those job sites he worked on as a young man.
Poole was 22 and living in Calgary when Marilyn gave birth to the couple’s third child, a boy named William John. He was born with myelomeningocele, the most severe form of spina bifida, a malformation of the spinal cord. The child’s spinal cord and lining protruded from an opening in the spine. Doctors told Poole the child could live six weeks or 30 years. “But it would never be a life,” says Poole, who would have two more daughters – Judy and Kelly – in the years following. “I had a terrible decision to make. I didn’t want my wife to see the child anymore, to know that. There was a Catholic facility in Calgary that looked after cases like that, so after they released him from hospital I picked him up and took him there. His head grew . . .”
Poole spreads his hands to approximate the size of a watermelon.
“It was a terrible thing to see. It was awful. He never had a life. It was a terrible thing to have to deal with. But I just couldn’t see bringing him home. It was hopeless.” Little William John would die nine months later.
Poole had a bank loan at the time. He was making $400 a month working as a trainee in Gulf Oil’s clerical division; the health facility in Calgary was charging $100 a month to take care of the child, which was more than he could afford. He went to the bank to explain his problem, and his banker said he’d put the loan on ice until Poole had the money to pay it off. “It was a real lesson for me,” he says. “Never keep secrets from your banker.” Poole supplemented his meagre salary at Gulf Oil by selling Fuller Brush door to door, making more money doing that part time than he earned at his office job. But there was nothing about the sales life that tempted Poole to do it for a living.