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A gift to last a lifetime

A gift to last a lifetime

The friendship between Robert MacIntosh and Michael Koerner held strong for decades. But the bond between them will go on in a unique fellowship that will last for generations.

Two elderly men walk down a sunny path with their arms around each other's shoulders. One holds a tennis racket, the other tosses a tennis ball.
Illustration by Nathalie Lees

Some friendships have no final curtain.

For more than 60 years, Robert MacIntosh and Michael Koerner – Bob and Mike – played tennis together, drank beer together, dined, travelled and attended concerts together (usually with their wives, Sonja and Lynn), debated finance and politics, and generally delighted in each other’s company.

Soon after Robert passed away last October at 97, Michael, a generous patron of the arts, medical research, and education, contacted Lynn MacIntosh about honouring his late friend. The endowment of the Dr. Robert MacIntosh Faculty Fellowship in the Queen’s Economics Department was the perfect tribute, Mrs. MacIntosh says.

“Of course the Koerners are enormously generous, but as well they target their generosity very thoughtfully, and this is an example of that,” she says. “It’s spot on for my husband,” who valued scholarship and championed financial education in particular.

“Michael and Sonja Koerners’ establishment of the Dr. Robert MacIntosh Faculty Fellowship will have a major impact on students and research in economics at Queen’s,” says Dr. Allen Head, head of the Department of Economics. “The fellowship will enable us to attract and retain

internationally known faculty in the areas of banking and financial policy, to which Dr. MacIntosh was a major contributor during his illustrious career.”

The fellowship is also a singular kind of donation for Queen’s. It does not memorialize an alumnus, nor is it endowed by an alumnus. It commemorates a towering figure in Canadian banking but, in a larger sense, it celebrates a remarkable friendship. And will do so in perpetuity.

The friendship began soon after Dr. MacIntosh, a McGill- and Cambridge-educated PhD in economics, became chief economist at the Bank of Nova Scotia in the 1950s, one of the first academics in a senior position in Canadian banking.

“There were lunches put on for anybody who wanted to hear what the Bank of Nova Scotia was thinking about the economy,” recalls Mr. Koerner, 92, a Czech-born businessman and one of Canada’s most successful venture capitalists.“I used to attend those luncheons if I could, and Bob always was the key spokesman.

“We enjoyed each other’s company because we were interested in economics… and the stock market,” says Mr. Koerner. “I found him a very good bouncing wall to test ideas with.”

The friendship “built over time,” says Mr. Koerner, “and had a lot to do with tennis.”

Games at Toronto’s oldest indoor racquet centre, The Queen’s Club, and at the venerable Badminton and Racquet Club in mid-town Toronto would end over beer and conversation. Mr. Koerner admits he would lose pretty regularly to the taller Dr. MacIntosh. “He was the better player, there’s no question of that.”

But the competition helped his game and the conversation was always engaging.

“If you were discussing anything to do with economics, central banking, money markets, he had an opinion,” says Mr. Koerner. “That was part of the fun of having a chat with him.

“He was intellectually much better equipped than most bankers,” Mr. Koerner says.

Robert MacIntosh joined the Bank of Nova Scotia in 1953 as the bank’s one-man economics department. He was an executive vice-president when he left in 1980 to become the first full-time president of the Canadian Bankers Association. By then, he had already established himself as an expert on public policy and government relations, and an outspoken advocate of the Canadian banking system.

When the Bank Act was overhauled in 1980, Dr. MacIntosh spent more than 50 hours testifying before a parliamentary committee considering the legislation.

He was also an avid historian, says Lynn MacIntosh. In retirement, he wrote books, including Different Drummers, a no-holds-barred account of government-banking relations in the 1970s and 1980s, and Earliest Toronto, inspired in part by his collection of rare Toronto histories, biographies, and ephemera dating back to 1807.

When the MacIntoshes saw the hit musical Hamilton, about the first U.S. secretary of the Treasury, Lynn MacIntosh says her husband took delight in explaining to playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda how Canada’s adoption of Alexander Hamilton’s principles of bank-government relations, eschewed by his own country, had made the Canadian banking system one of the most stable in the world.

Dr. MacIntosh is celebrated as an early advocate for women in banking. The Bank of Nova Scotia was the first in Canada to employ women as branch managers in 1961, and Dr. MacIntosh pushed to have women included in the bank’s pension plan, forcing other banks to follow suit, says Lynn MacIntosh.

“He hired a lot of capable women and mentored them on their way. He went to bat for them at a time when women were not in the top echelon of any industry in Canada,” she says.

One of his protégés at the Bank of Nova Scotia, Helen Sinclair, succeeded him as president of the Canadian Bankers Association in 1989. In a memorial to her former mentor she wrote: “No small number of us owe our careers and outlook on life to Bob MacIntosh. He championed women for opportunities otherwise beyond our reach.”

Dr. MacIntosh shared an interest in art with his friend Michael Koerner, though his collection of West Coast Indigenous prints, jewelry, and carvings was modest by the standards of avid collectors such as the Koerners, says Lynn MacIntosh. But when the Koerners entertained the late Haida artist Bill Reid before his death in 1998, Mr. Koerner thought to invite his old friends Bob and Lynn along.

Michael Koerner’s patronage of music and art, and his unstinting involvement in arts organizations, have earned him many honours, including investiture in the Order of Canada and a Governor General’s Award for Volunteerism in the Performing Arts. It also colours many of the reminiscences about his friendship with Robert MacIntosh. Mr. Koerner remembers taking Dr. MacIntosh to see his friend Glenn Gould play before the pianist gave up public performance for good in the 1960s. In 2009, when the Royal Conservatory of Music opened its acclaimed performance space Koerner Hall, named after its generous patron, the MacIntoshes were invited. Lynn MacIntosh recalls hearing the world premiere of Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer’s Spirits of the House, commissioned by Mr. Koerner.

Mr. Koerner’s good friend Mr. Schafer was at the heart of another memorable night for Lynn MacIntosh. The Koerners came to the MacIntoshes’ home with the score and performance tape of a commission they’d given the avant-garde composer. “Robert and I looked at the score and there were no bar lines. So we thought, before we play the tape, let’s imagine what it’s going to sound like and that was exciting for us, too.”

Lynn MacIntosh still cherishes an inscribed copy of the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada that she and her husband received from Mr. Koerner in the 1980s. Mr. Koerner was director general of the project to create the now-standard reference work.

The couples would travel to each other’s recreational properties, the Koerners’ in Florida and the MacIntoshes’ in Muskoka. Michael Koerner, an accomplished keyboardist with a fine collection of antique instruments, would play for his guests. “[The Koerners] are very relaxing to be with,” says Lynn MacIntosh. “We would walk on the beach, play tennis, or just be together.”

“I would enjoy Michael’s wonderful stories,” she says. “He has many really interesting stories... You sort of come away knowing something new.”

The friendship came “full circle” during the final days of her husband’s life, says Mrs. MacIntosh. “I met the Koerners as the very first of my husband’s friends. As he became very frail, one of the last things we were able to do outside our own home was to go to the Koerners for a little quiet, lovely dinner. [Michael] had just got a new antique harpsichord.”

The endowment of the fellowship in Robert MacIntosh’s name is fitting because “he was a champion of education,” says Mrs. MacIntosh. He promoted ongoing financial training for bankers both at the Bank of Nova Scotia and the Canadian Bankers Association.

The tribute is “perfect,” she says. “And he would be thrilled that it was at Queen’s because… he had a great deal of respect for their academic faculty.”

Michael Koerner chose Queen’s for the fellowship in part because he already had a relationship with the university, he says. Two of his daughters are alumnae and during visits to the campus Mr. Koerner took notice of the Agnes Etherington Art Centre.

“I thought it would be interesting to have artists come down and talk to the students and discuss the creative process that artists go through to paint or sculpt or do prints.” Queen’s liked the idea, he says, so he began providing an annual grant for artists to spend time at the centre. The program has since been endowed as the ongoing Koerner Artist in Residency Program.

Mr. Koerner received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Queen’s in 2014.

The Dr. Robert MacIntosh Faculty Fellowship “will elevate the quality of research and teaching related to banking and financial policy at Queen’s,” says Dr. Head. “These topics are a significant priority for academic economists and policy-makers alike as we study the role of the financial sector in meeting the challenges of climate change, recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, and reducing barriers toward the goal of making Canada’s economy more inclusive, equitable, and successful.”

“I just wanted to do something in Bob’s honour that would last and at the same time help Queen’s,” says Mr. Koerner. “It’s up to the administration at Queen’s to do the best they can with it, and I’m sure they will.”

graphic of cover of Queen's Alumni Review, issue 2, 2021