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David Leighton at his home along the Thames River near London, Ont., on May 23, 2006.GEOFF ROBINS/The Globe and Mail

It was never easy to describe the professional calling of David Leighton, who distinguished himself in the varied roles of business professor, arts administrator, marketing expert and corporate director.

“Dad would say he had a zigzag career,” recalled his son Doug, a Calgary planning consultant. “I would say he was a Renaissance man, one of those rare people comfortable in both the arts and the business sector.”

Mr. Leighton, who died on Aug. 11 in Canmore, Alta., at the age of 94, was indeed a man of multiple talents, a pioneering professor at Western University’s Ivey School of Business, author of several books on marketing and corporate governance, a director who sat on a total of 20 boards over his lifetime, many of them leading Canadian companies.

But it was at the Banff Centre for the Performing Arts in the 1970s and at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre (NAC) in the early 2000s, where Mr. Leighton left perhaps his greatest marks, combining his shrewd business acumen and love of the arts to lead both institutions with skill and determination.

His most daunting challenge came in his later years, when he was asked by the Jean Chrétien government to take over as chair of the National Arts Centre board. It was 1999 and the NAC was in a period of extreme turmoil, having cycled through half a dozen CEOs in 10 years. Its finances and programming were in disarray.

His first task was to recruit a new chief executive and Mr. Leighton was introduced by a headhunter to Peter Herrndorf, who had just completed seven years as head of TVOntario.

“We hit it off instantly. It was as if we had known each other for 30 years,” Mr. Herrndorf recalled. He took the job, helping relaunch the NAC. “Part of the reason we worked so well together is that our backgrounds were kind of interchangeable. Both of us had been CEOs. Both of us had been board chairs. We knew how to support one another and stay out of one another’s lanes.”

Unlike many part-time chairs, Mr. Leighton dove into the job, renting an apartment in Ottawa with his wife, Peggy, and becoming a regular presence at the NAC. An amateur violinist, Mr. Leighton loved classical music so he and Peggy travelled with the NAC orchestra whenever it toured abroad.

“They were there all the time,” Mr. Herrndorf said. “If an organization had a grandfather and a grandmother, they were it.

“Our seven years there together was a real joy,” Mr. Herrndorf continued.

Mr. Leighton also fought for the NAC board’s independence, insisting that the government halt its practice of naming political “bagmen” with little or no experience as board members. On one occasion, he intervened with Mr. Chrétien to stop an unsuitable appointment. He also helped form the NAC Foundation and spread the centre’s activities across the country.

“I don’t think Peter could have done the job without David behind him. There were an absolute team,” said Sarah Jennings, a former outside member of the NAC board and author of a history of the NAC. Mr. Leighton stepped down as chair in 2006. Mr. Herrndorf retired in 2018.

Ms. Jennings said that despite his accomplishments, Mr. Leighton remained a modest man. When he retired from the NAC, he and his wife were given the chance to be honoured by name in the building. “They decided not to put their names front and centre but behind scenes in the green room, where only the performers can see it.”

David S.R. Leighton was born in Regina, Sask. on Feb. 20, 1928, the second son of Gordon E. Leighton, a newspaper editor, and his wife, Mary Leighton. The family moved to Ottawa during the Second World War, where David’s father took management responsibilities at the Defence Department.

On graduation from high school, Mr. Leighton attended Queen’s University, where he was editor of the Queen’s Journal and met his future wife, Peggy House of St. Catharines, Ont. He earned an Honours BA in economics and political science and after a brief stint as a journalist headed to Harvard with a scholarship, earning an MBA with High Distinction and a DBA doctoral degree at the Harvard School of Business.

David Leighton, who died on Aug. 11 in Canmore, Alta., at the age of 94, was a man of multiple talents.GEOFF ROBINS/The Globe and Mail

The University of Western Ontario recruited him in 1956 to teach at its still-fledgling School of Business Administration (now Ivey Business School), where he specialized in marketing and was founding director of its PhD program. He was a visiting professor twice in Lausanne, Switzerland, during that period and later also taught at Harvard and Cambridge in the U.K.

Mr. Leighton later became the first Canadian elected as president of the American Marketing Association. He authored many books and articles, including a classic text, Making Boards Work, written with a colleague at the Ivey School, Donald Thain, and published in 1997.

Despite a successful academic career, Mr. Leighton was looking for another challenge. He was approached by the chair of Banff School of Fine Arts, which was looking for a new chief executive to help transform a six-week program into a year-round centre for the arts. Leighton jumped at the opportunity, moving his young family of five children to Banff in 1970. “We got in the best people in Canada, the best people in each discipline,” he later recalled in an interview.

Over the next dozen years and what he admitted was “lots of slogging,” he helped turn the Banff Centre into a leading international cultural institution. “The concept of Banff Centre is the bringing together of the disciplines and the exchange of ideas,” he said.

It was a collaborative effort with his wife, who worked closely with him and made the Leighton residence into a second home for performers and artists. “Whoever didn’t have a place to go after events always had a place at our dinner table,” daughter Katy recalled.

After a dozen years at the Banff Centre, Mr. Leighton took on the role of president at the organizing committee for the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics but it proved an unhappy experience. He clashed with members of the volunteer board of Calgary “old boys” and left after less than a year. “It was the only time he really failed at anything,” Katy said. He didn’t stay jobless for long.

A former student of Mr. Leighton’s from the Ivey School, F. Ross Johnson, had become a corporate high-flyer in the United States as president of Nabisco Brands Inc., with his swashbuckling approach later immortalized in the bestselling book on corporate greed, Barbarians at the Gate. Katy said that Mr. Johnson felt that her father “had been mistreated and wanted to make sure he landed on his feet.”

So Mr. Johnson had Mr. Leighton appointed chair of Nabisco’s Canadian subsidiary, where he stayed in different roles until 1987. While it was largely a largely figurehead position, it did give him the time to take on a slew of corporate directorships, including at Rio Algom, Montreal Trust and Gulf Canada.

Mr. Leighton returned to Western in 1986 as founding director of the National Centre for Management and Development before stepping down in 1991 to focus on his own research. He and his wife retired in London, Ont., after the NAC years, moving back to Alberta in 2018 as Mr. Leighton’s health declined.

Mr. Leighton was appointed an officer of the Order of Canada in 2003 and was honoured with the Alberta Award of Excellence in 1985. He was also awarded honorary degrees by the University of Windsor and Queen’s University.

Mr. Leighton leaves his wife of 71 years, Peggy; his children, Doug, Bruce, Katy, Jenny and Andrew; and 10 grandchildren.

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