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JOHN DeMONT: New hospital wing honours Neville Gilfoy, the Dartmouth boy with the high-level view

The donor wall for the Above and Beyond Campaign, is unveiled in the Neville J. Gilfoy Wing of the Dartmouth General hospital, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020.
The donor wall for the Above and Beyond Campaign, is unveiled in the Neville J. Gilfoy Wing of the Dartmouth General hospital, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020. - Tim Krochak

Like so many people in this city, province, region, and, I guess, world, I knew Neville Gilfoy, the magazine editor and champion of everything Atlantic Canadian, whose name graces a new wing at Dartmouth General Hospital which officially opens next week.

I just didn’t know him well. After spending Wednesday hunting down a few stories about this man who left us four years ago, at age 63, I wish I had. 

Here, for example, is one: when Progress Media moved to some new digs in the Centennial Building in downtown Halifax, the late founder and publisher proudly took possession of a new office with a grand view of the harbour.

Inside, as it was described to me, stood a large, elegant desk and a roomy sofa, as befitting a room where Gilfoy would meet with his vast network of friends and associates to hash out some new idea, and where staffers would sometimes congregate on Friday afternoons for end-of-week drinks.

Neville Gilfoy.
Neville Gilfoy.

Outside, though, was a sign that mysteriously appeared the day Gilfoy took possession. It said, "Bob Guccione, publisher." 

Now, the contrast between the sleazy American porno magnate and Gilfoy, the natty Halifax publisher so fond of blue suits and tightly knotted ties, is funny.

So is this: he never took the sign down. 

For years to come, as I understand it, anyone entering Gilfoy’s office walked past it into the room, whereupon they had to get the joke. 

"He profoundly impacted so many people in a positive way."

- Pamela Scott-Crace, former editor of Progress Magazine

Gilfoy, you see, wasn’t just an unrelenting optimist who put out a magazine devoted to helping our region and its people reach their full potential. 

“He was mission-driven in everything he did,” said Pamela Scott-Crace, the former editor of Progress Magazine. “He profoundly impacted so many people in a positive way.”

Wednesday night, some of them were at Dartmouth General, as the donor wall for the hospital’s $13-million capital campaign was unveiled. Next week, even more of Neville’s fans will be at the hospital. 

The Neville J. Gilfoy Wing — which includes state-of the-art operating facilities, a new outpatient centre and a new endoscopy unit — opened for business in early December. On Jan. 30, a gathering officially marking the occasion will be held, at which point a portrait of Gilfoy, by Dartmouth artist Tom Forrestall, will be displayed in public for the first time.

“We wanted to do something significant to support health care,” said Patrick O’Regan, whose family put up $2 million for project. “We also wanted to do something to recognize someone who has been a great citizen of this province.”

That the automobile clan decided to put Gilfoy’s name on the new wing — which is part of the hospital’s new Fred Smithers Centre for Orthopedic Care — rather than their own speaks volumes about his impactful life.

He didn’t win elections or build some kind of vast business empire. Instead, Gilfoy, a Dartmouth boy, got people thinking and talking, and, by so doing, opened an uplifting conversation about the future of this region that is still going on today.

"He was unlike anybody around here."

- Peter Spurway, a communications-media relations consultant

“He was unlike anybody around here,” said Peter Spurway, a communications-media relations consultant who told me about Gilfoy’s tireless belief in Atlantic Canada — and his ability to stand back and take the high-level view of the region, its issues and how to solve them, in his magazines and conferences.

Anyone attending any of those region-wide gatherings, I’m told, saw the unparalleled connector of people at his best. “Always holding court,” a friend, who was at many of the Progress conferences, said of Gilfoy. “Always funny, always on.”

He sounds like the best of company: a bon vivant, and a great storyteller, who possessed the kind of flair that some might call flamboyance and others charisma. 

David Holt, Progress Magazine’s founding editor said that Gilfoy had a mathematical mind, which served him well in the publishing business, with Progress but also Atlantic Insight Magazine and as the head of circulation in the region for the Globe and Mail newspaper, as well as the bridge table where he was a terror.

He liked the trappings of success, the suits, and the dark Lexus with the Top 101 licence plate, a reference to Progress Magazine’s annual ranking of the top 101 companies in the region. 

His thinking, meanwhile, was anything but provincial. Gilfoy, according to Scott-Crace, was the originator of the Buy Local movement in these parts. For a time, he was also the driving force behind the Atlantica concept, which involved forging greater links between Atlantic Canada, Eastern Quebec and Maine. 

But Gilfoy was so proud of his Dartmouth roots that he still lived there, in a bigger house across the street from the one in which he grew up. 

I like that story. On the 30th, I have a feeling there will be a lot more just like it.

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