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Queen’s remembers alumnus, philanthropist, businessman Donald Sobey

Chancellor Leech and Donald Sobey
Chancellor Jim Leech, left, stands with Donald Sobey (Com’57, LLD’16), during a 2016 honorary degree ceremony at Queen's University. (University Communications)

The Queen’s community is remembering Donald Sobey (Com’57, LLD’16), a successful Canadian businessman and philanthropist who supported several major scholarships and initiatives at the university, who died on Thursday, March 24. He was 86.

“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. His passing is a great loss to the Queen’s community.”     

After graduating from Queen’s, Sobey returned home to Nova Scotia and joined his family’s grocery business. He helped build Sobey into a national grocery brand. He was appointed to the board of Empire Company Limited in 1963, became president in 1969 and took on the role as chairman in 1985 until his retirement in 2004. Today, Empire employs about 127,000 people and has approximately $28 billion in annualized sales in areas such as food retail and real estate.

Donald Sobey was one of only two Atlantic Canadian students when he arrived at Queen’s in 1953 and described his student experience as transformative.

He and his son Rob (Artsci’88) committed millions of dollars to ensure other students from Atlantic Canada have the same opportunity to learn and excel at Queen’s. In 1998, Donald and Rob created the D&R Sobey Atlantic Admission Award, a major admission award which each year funds up to eight outstanding Atlantic Canadian high school students entering the Smith School of Business. Every year, the father and son return to Queen’s to host a traditional East Coast lobster supper and meet with the award recipients.

“I’m really proud [of the scholarships],” Sobey said after getting an honorary degree from Queen’s in 2016. “I enjoy the interactions. They are amazing young people, and you can see the country is in pretty good hands.”

In 2008, he established the Donald R. Sobey Professorship to support high-quality research conducted by a School of Business faculty member.

When the pandemic hit last year, Sobey was one of the first philanthropists to support a project led by Queen’s Professor Emeritus and Nobel Prize recipient Arthur McDonald to design an easy-to-build ventilator that can help treat COVID-19 patients. Sobey made his donation less than 24 hours after receiving a phone call from Dr. McDonald asking for support.

In 2007, Sobey was inducted into the Canadian Business Hall of Fame, and in 2014, he was appointed to the Order of Canada for his contributions as an entrepreneur and philanthropist and in 2016 recognized by Queen’s with an honorary degree.