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Hamilton philanthropists Charles and Margaret Juravinski in their home in Dundas, Ont., on May 28, 2019.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Charles Juravinski, who has died at the age of 92, was born in poverty and received little schooling, but he and his wife donated more than $160-million to health care research in the Hamilton area. The source of his wealth was Flamboro Downs racetrack, near Hamilton, which he founded in the 1970s and ran for decades before selling it in 2002.

Mr. Juravinski was an outgoing man who said he enjoyed giving money away.

“Giving is like a drug,” he once told a reporter from the National Post. “Nothing feels better than helping others.”

And he liked to help in the Hamilton area, where he lived and worked most of his life, and give to health care research. His biggest donation came three years ago when he and his wife, Margaret Juravinski, gave an endowed legacy gift of $100-million to fund health care research in perpetuity through their Juravinski Research Institute.

“The endowment was designed to generate approximately $5-million annually to support health researchers at Hamilton Health Sciences, McMaster University and St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton. The Juravinskis’ estate gift is one of Canada’s largest-ever legacy gifts,” said a joint statement from the three organizations.

The first payout from the endowment arrived just as COVID-19 hit a little over two years ago.

“We decided to start research on COVID-19, one of the first centres in Canada to do so,” said Julian Dobranowski, chair of the Juravinski Research Institute and head of the radiology department at McMaster University, among other things. “We were able to leverage the Juravinski donation and receive another $19-million. It is really quite meaningful.”

Charles Juravinski was born in Blaine, Sask., on Nov. 1, 1929, just as the stock market crash was ushering in the Great Depression. He was christened Orest, but after kids at school made fun of his Ukrainian name, he became Charlie, or Charles.

He was the youngest of four sons of Irene and Nicholas Juravinski; his Canadian-born parents were of Ukrainian heritage, descended from immigrants who relocated to this country’s Prairie provinces in large numbers.

His father ran a pool hall in Blaine and a business emptying outhouses. But times were so tough in Saskatchewan that the family moved to Hamilton, where Nick worked in the Westinghouse factory.

The Juravinski family spoke Ukrainian at home, according to William Juravinski, Charles’s nephew, who was raised by his grandparents, Irene and Nicholas, from the age of 10 after his own father was killed in a car accident.

“Uncle spoke fluent Ukrainian growing up,” said William, who always referred to Charles as “Uncle.” As an adult, William said, Charles lost most of his Ukrainian.

“His Ukrainian heritage was very important to Charlie,” said Dr. Dobranowski, whose background is Polish. “If I used a Polish word, he would connect it to Ukrainian.”

In Hamilton, Charles Juravinski started working, shining shoes delivering papers and saving his money. He got as far as Grade 9 when he quit school and went out to work, at first in construction, then running an Esso service station.

Mr. Juravinski was self-taught and admired people with education.

“He was critical of himself because of his basic education. He was always curious, interested in everything,” Dr. Dobranowski said. “He wanted to know how an MRI worked or details on the human body. You never had a short conversation with him; he was always asking questions.”

After running the Esso station, Mr. Juravinski went into the construction business with a partner. He did well, and his partner retired in 1971. Mr. Juravinski thought about running for politics but lost the nomination to run for the Conservatives in a provincial election. The man he lost to, Ray Connell, suggested he get into the racetrack game.

Instead of buying an existing track, he and some partners – whom he eventually bought out – purchased a 203-acre site just outside Hamilton in 1972.

“He didn’t know one end of a horse from the other,” his wife, Margaret, told The Globe recently. But he did know how to raise money and work hard.

Flamboro Downs opened in 1975. On the opening day, 6,000 people filled the stands.

The money in running a race track comes from ticket sales as well as gambling. While the Juravinskis owned many successful horses, Charles never gambled, except for small wagers with his golfing friends. He did, however, make a fortune from others’ gambling at his track.

There were 750 slot machines at Flamboro Downs, operated by the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, and seven off-track betting operations. Flamboro made 20 per cent of the slot machine revenue minus the payout to gamblers. It kept half that amount and added half to the purses for its harness races. Flamboro’s handle – or the amount taken in from wagering – was $140-million (Canadian) in the year before he sold the track, Mr. Juravinski told The Globe and Mail at the time. The half-mile track was open year-round for harness racing, with about 260 days of live racing.

In June of 2002, Mr. Juravinski sold Flamboro Downs to Magna Entertainment, the racetrack firm controlled by industrialist Frank Stronach, for US$47-million, which was worth just more than $72-million Canadian at the time.

Mr. Juravinski told The Globe he was too old to stay in the business. “I have the vision, but I don’t have the energy,” said Mr. Juravinski, who was then 72. He lived for another 20 years.

The Juravinskis were sitting at home six months after selling the racetrack when a man came to their door looking for donations to the Hamilton Regional Cancer Centre, in a story recounted in the Hamilton Spectator. The man told the couple the campaign was $1.2-million short. A day later, they shocked him when they said they would donate $5-million.

They gave around $60-million to various charities in the Hamilton area, most dealing with health care. But it was the additional $100-million endowment that caused the greatest excitement in the medical research community.

“Charlie’s impact on funding the Juravinski Research Institute was immediate in early 2020 as the COVID pandemic hit, and the funds were available to support efforts from across the city to deal with COVID. This ranged from development of sensitive … rapid diagnostics for COVID, developed in Hamilton and used throughout the province, to providing the seed funds required to develop the infrastructure to deliver integrated care for older adults across the city,” said Dr. Jack Gauldie, a medical professor at McMaster University.

“Funds were also made available to retain the international expertise in addiction research in Hamilton. But the most important aspect of the funding for JRI was Charlie’s insistence of support for research that was across institutions and impactful for all of Hamilton. This unique requirement has engendered collaboration and cross-discipline efforts that are truly innovative, involving all of the outstanding expertise available across the university and health care institutions in Hamilton.”

Charles and Margaret Juravinski lived relatively simple lives. Mrs. Juravinski said early poverty was what drove their success.

“Coming up from poverty, both of us, we were from extremely poor families. You have no shoes or proper clothes when you’re young, and you strive to get something,” she said. “We could have spent it on ourselves but at that point, we were getting pretty old and had never done anything for ourselves, so we decided everybody needs health care at some point in their life, so that was the way we decided to go.”

Dr. Dobranowski is not only involved in the Juravinski charity; he and Mr. Juravinski became close friends.

“He was an outgoing man, but to say he lived modestly is an understatement,” Dr. Dobranowski said. “They liked to travel, but they were frugal and careful. Donating to health care was their only extravagance.”

Mr. Juravinski, who died in Hamilton on Feb. 15, leaves his wife, Mrs. Juravinski.