Mel Zajac

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Mel Zajac

His personal drive helped him rise from a poor kid in Winnipeg to a successful highrise builder in Vancouver.

But his real contribution to society has been his philanthropy. Raised during the Great Depression, he’s always had an empathy for children, and has worked tirelessly for them. 

“When I make money, I want to help young kids,” said Zajac, who will turn 95 on May 15.

 Zajac has worked with a wide variety of charities over the years, but his proudest achievement is Zajac Ranch for Children in Mission. Every summer, the ranch hosts about 400 kids with medical disabilities at a bucolic 41-acre property on the shores of Stave Lake.

The idea to turn it into a camp for children with medical issues like autism and heart and kidney problems came from his friend, the late actor Paul Newman, another renowned philanthropist.

 “I lived in Palm Springs a couple of doors from his brother,” Zajac explains. Hobnobbing with the Hollywood elite is another part of the Zajac saga. His most successful development was the Pacific Palisades hotel-apartment complex in the West End, which he helped turn into Vancouver’s main movie-star hotel in the 1970s and ’80s. He became friends with many stars, including Bob Hope, and through Hope and other connections met several U.S. presidents — Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr., Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton.

 This would have been unimaginable for the young Melvin Nicholas Zajac, who was born in 1928 in Winnipeg.

“My parents were from Ukraine,” he relates.  “They lived in the (working class) North End, my mother spoke very little English. Actually I didn’t speak English ‘til I went to school, until I was six years old. In the house we just spoke Ukrainian.”

His father died when he was six. Growing up without a father in the Great Depression meant the family of eight had to work hard to survive.

 “In those days there was no such thing as pensions and so forth,” said Zajac.  “So my brother Peter, who was the oldest (kid), went to work for the railway. He was 15,” he said. “My mother started working on a farm. She got $2 a day. We just got by.”

 Mel chipped in by working himself, first with a paper route and then with a job at a bowling alley.  “I made $6 or $7 a week after school,” he said.

He moved to Vancouver when he was 19.

 “My sister lived here so I came to visit her twice,” he said. “The third time I stayed with her for four years. The guy who came for dinner and never left, that’s me.”

 He got a job at a building supply company. “Next to me was a blind guy who took orders,” he recounts.

 “He said, ‘Why don’t you build a house? You’ve got a lot of ambition.’ I went to my boss and said, ‘Am I going to get a promotion? He said, ‘Not likely,’ so I quit.”

He went into the construction business, building his first house in 1954 for $14,000. He sold it for $17,000, then started building small apartment blocks, at about $5,000 per suite. In 1958 he built one of the first high-rises in the West End.

 “That was on Barclay Street,” he said. “It was eight storeys, only a 42-suiter, (which was) a high-rise in those days. It’s still there.”

He flourished in construction, and in the mid-’60s “tied up” the Pacific Palisades block on Alberni Street with only $50,000. He then talked North American Life into partnering on the project.

 “It was the first (residential high-rise) built in the downtown area,” he said. “People said, ‘You won’t be able to rent it, you’re too close to downtown.’”

 Unfortunately, in 1972 he had to sell his share.

 “I got involved with some guys on the Island and lost everything,” he said. “I lost about $20 million, which was a lot of money in that day. I had three cars, I had a small boat, I had a Whistler place, about three, four homes.”

 But he managed to hang onto the $2 million he received selling his share in the Palisades to North American Life. He became the manager of the hotel, and lived in the penthouse, so many people thought he still owned it.

He had two boys and three girls with his first wife Irene. The boys (Mel Jr. and Marty) were both exceptional athletes who received scholarships from Arizona State University.

 Mel Jr. was a swimmer who represented Canada in the 1976 Olympics. Tragically he drowned on July 13, 1986, when he was caught in a tidepool while kayaking on the Chilliwack River.

 Eight months later, on March 23, 1987, Marty was killed in an avalanche near Blue River in the Cariboo.

 “It hurt me hard,” Zajac said.

 “I was very close to the skier, Marty. He phoned me every day, morning and night. My wife would say, ‘What are you guys talking about?’”

In their memory Zajac started the Mel Jr. and Marty Zajac Foundation, which became the focus of his philanthropy.

Among other things, it runs the Zajac Norgate House, a seniors home in North Vancouver, and sponsors the Mel Zajac Jr. International Swim Meet at UBC. 

It also runs the Zajac Ranch, which is located on a former prison work camp, several kilometres up a rough gravel road.

The ranch has grown to 24 buildings, including dorms, a barn, an indoor riding range, a small amphitheatre and a pool.

 He tries to add a little extra to everything. When he built the pool, he went all out, building a giant indoor facility with a waterfall. When he built a guest house for the volunteer nurses at the ranch, he put in a marble bathroom.

 “So the nurses come back,” he said with a smile.

 The ranch typically runs from June to September, and Zajac and his second wife Wendy usually spend a couple of days per week there, overseeing things.

The kids get to mingle with chickens, goats, sheep and horses, and if their condition allows, go horseback riding, canoeing, or rock climbing. There is also an indoor basketball court and a grass field for soccer or baseball.

 He’ll celebrate his 95th birthday in Las Vegas with his wife and one of his daughters.

 “I really appreciate everything,” he said.

 “Here I am, a poor kid who didn’t want to wear relief pants (in the depression), because that meant everybody knew I was on relief. My mother said ‘OK, I’ll patch up what you have.’”

 Growing up poor gave him an empathy that has defined his life. He’s received the Order of Canada, the Order of B.C., among other honours. But you get the feeling his greatest thrill is seeing a child with medical issues have fun.