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Remembering Hamilton’s Larry Russell

Back in the pre-digital days when phone numbers and contact information were stored on a manual card device called a Rolodex, Larry Russel had a Rolodex to kill for. Larry  had contacts with almost everyone who was anyone in Hamilton and beyond—in business, in politics, in the media. Larry, whose death at age 80, was announced last Saturday, was an “influencer” long before the term became vogue in social media. Larry was a man who dreamed big. Whether it was organizing the first ever Formula Atlantic car race in Canada on the streets of Hamilton, or thirty years later being  an early organizer for the World Cycling Championships, or managing a national Liberal leadership for John Munro, or helming two successful mayoralty campaigns; Larry always seemed to be in the centre of big events.

Larry Russel was nominally an advertising man, having worked in the respected Hamilton firm of Russell T Kelly, and later managing his own firm. But his real strength was promotion. Larry first garnered attention outside Hamilton when he organized and almost pulled off, a Formula Atlantic car race in the streets of Hamilton in 1978. Formula Atlantic racing had started in the ’70s, with single-seat, open-wheeled winged vehicles that could hit 270 km/h. There had been races in Quebec City and Tois-Rivières Hamilton was getting to join the list of sites for an exotic sport born in Monaco. Hamilton’s race was to be the sixth in the Labatt Championship Series. The project was plagued from the beginning with insurance issues. The city kept escalating the amount of coverage required until the number hit $10 Million.  Alarmed at the growing risk, the American insurance company sent representatives to Hamilton to ensure risk was minimized and their last-minute demands for changes to the fencing and crowd protection infrastructure delayed the race until 8PM of race day.  The race eventually went ahead in a truncated form, due to darkness and Larry’s group lost a lot of money after nearly half the audience estimated at 30,000 managed to see the race without paying. In this vintage film clip, Larry talked to a TV reporter about some of the clean-up costs.

At roughly the same time Larry was Assistant manager of Hamilton Place, at a time when the concert hall was a magnet for the biggest international performers. All the big names, from Tom Jones, Liberace, Victor Borge, Tony Bennett, Aretha Franklin, Ben Vereen and Nana Mouskouri were frequent guests. CHCH produced a weekly syndicated TV  variety show called the Palace with host Jack Jones and featuring the who’s who of show business, and Larry was in the middle of all that, rubbing elbows with the celebrities.

The 1970’s and 1980’s were the heyday of John Munro in Hamilton. He was the Liberal boss in every sense of the word, dispensing patronage from the basement of the Aero Tavern on Barton Street at Sherman. Judgeships and Harbour Commission appointments were decided there among many other issues. When Munro was minister of Indian Affairs, as it was then called, he engaged Larry’s public relations and marketing firm for a variety of jobs related to the aboriginal portfolio, and Larry travelled all over Canada forging relationships with aboriginal leaders. In 1984 with the retirement of Pierre Elliott Trudeau as Prime Minister, Munro threw his hat into the leadership race, and Larry was his Convention Manager. Munro garnered only 93 votes on the first ballot and withdrew, throwing his support to Jean Chretien, But it was John Turner who won, and when he took over as Prime Minister he excluded John Munro from Cabinet, ending one of Hamilton’s most notable political dynasties. But things would get worse. The RCMP began investigating allegations that Munro had financed his leadership campaign from kickbacks from native organizations who had received grants from Munro as Minister. After an almost four-year investigation, Munro, several native leaders and Larry were charged with breach of trust and corruption. When the case finally made its way to court the charges were dismissed without the defense having even to mount a case. Despite the exoneration, the legal bills associated with the nine-month ordeal had exhausted Larry’s resources. He lost everything. Adding insult to injury, years later John Munro was compensated for his costs in a court settlement, but there was nothing for Larry despite his repeated attempts to seek compensation.

Still Larry picked up the pieces and soldiered on. He patented and promoted a flood control system that consisted of filling rubber tubing with water as an alternative to sandbags. It was an idea he first got when he was promoting the car race. Larry was not a person who displayed bitterness about his devastatingly unfair treatment. He continued to network with a wide array of contacts including David Braley, with whom Larry went to Westdale Collegiate when the two were growing up in the Dundurn Street area. He wrote speeches for business people and performed other contract jobs.

Larry’s advice was often sought on political campaigns. In 2000, Bob Wade tapped Larry to run his campaign for Mayor of Hamilton against Bob Morrow who seemed unbeatable at the time. The campaign showcased Larry’s gifts—particularly his gift for using his network of contacts to assemble a team. It might have been the last of the old fashioned boiler-room campaigns with dozens of volunteers, banks of telephones, and money pouring in from donors who wanted change in a newly amalgamated city. The campaign was a triumph, but Larry did not find his way onto the new Mayor’s political staff. He did get an appointment to wind up the affairs of the Hamilton Downtown Partnertship. Three years later, again it was Larry managing the successful campaign of Larry DiIanni, again successfully, again no job. It was a bit surprising, given Larry’s contacts with both council and the community, that he was not seen as a natural political liaison. Larry did get appointed to the Hamilton Port Authority and became its chairman. He led a delegation to China to forge relationships with a Port Authority there.

In 2001 Larry was appointed as an early organizer for the World Cycling Championships to be held in Hamilton. The organization got off on an inauspicious start holding its inaugural news conference of Sept 11, 2001—a day famous for other reasons. Larry had assembled a small organizing team including this writer, who was then operating a communications firm, but the team was disbanded shortly afterwards when promised Federal and Provincial funding was held up. Eventually the funding came though and the races went forward, but with a different organizing team.

As the years went on Larry’s health began to decline, and eventually he and his wife Sue left Hamilton to be with their daughter in Barrie. Larry kept in touch by phone with his Hamilton contacts up until recently when his health problems worsened. Larry Russell died last Saturday with his wife and children by his side. Cremation has taken place and a celebration of life will take place after the pandemic has passed. The family is requesting that those who wish to remember Larry make a donation to Hospice Simcoe (Barrie) where Larry received final care.  

Larry Russell will be remembered as a man who was not afraid of big challenges. He handled adversity with dignity and courage. He was a true gentleman.

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