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A man with a soft spot for Montreal's seafarers

He kept a low profile but he was gregarious, a giant of Old Montreal, with a strong feel for its history

ALAN HUSTAKThe Gazette

 

Sunday, January 27, 2008

 

 

Grant Townsend, who owned a waterfront maritime supply company, was for more than 30 years involved in the direction of Mariners House, a hostel and social centre for itinerant seafarers in Old Montreal.

 

Much more than an active Mariners House board member, he often contributed directly to sailors in need out of his own pocket.

 

Townsend was 92 when he died at St. Mary's Hospital on Jan. 9.

 

"He was a very good money manager. He was very involved in the welfare of Mariners House," said the institution's manager, Carolyn Osborne.

 

"He never wanted to be board president because he was always bucking the board's considered opinion.

 

"When our original building was put up for sale in the 1970s, the board was ready to take the first measly offer it could get, but he insisted they hold out for a much more substantial offer to guarantee the future of Mariners House." Grant William Townsend, the eldest of six children in a ship's chandler's family, was born in Montreal on Sept. 15, 1915, into a long line of seafarers. One of his ancestors was a British navy officer who took part in the siege of Louisbourg in 1758.

 

His grandfather was the captain of a Nova Scotia windjammer. His father, Dudley Roy Townsend, founded the Montreal shipping supply company in 1917 and was Canada's comptroller for shipping supplies during the Second World War. For his contributions he was awarded the Order of the British Empire. Townsend had hoped to enlist in the Royal Canadian Navy during the war, but was rejected because of poor eyesight.

 

Townsend was raised in Westmount and obtained an engineering degree from McGill University in 1950. He worked for Alcan then started a scaffolding company that he owned with a partner until he joined his father's business in 1961.

 

Encouraged by his father, Townsend took an active interest in sailors' welfare and was a fundraiser for the Sailors' Institute. He helped negotiate its 1968 merger with the Catholic Sailors Club, which had been started in 1893, into the non-denominational Mariners House.

 

A gregarious individual with a soft spot for those who worked the waterfront, he often housed as many or six or seven seamen in the second floor of his warehouse.

 

"The work he did was unbelievable, he was always involved in service clubs, like the Rotary Club, and as vice-president of the Ship Suppliers Association. He kept a very low profile," said his widow, Berna Nardin.

"He always could work his way around any problem and find a solution.

 

"He was very determined. More than money, he used his influence to get things done. He was soft. He'd often hire people because they needed a job, not because they were necessarily qualified." Townsend's company warehouse in the Gillespie Moffatt building on Place d'Youville stood on the site of a mansion built in 1691 for Louis-Hector de Callière, who was governor of Montreal from 1684 to 1698 and then governor of New France until he died in 1703.

 

Seven years ago Townsend sold the historic property to the Pointe à Callière archeological museum for well below its market value.

It was, he said, his gift to the city. The museum plans to incorporate the foundations of the mansion into an expanded $30-million underground gallery.

 

"He adored Old Montreal and was steeped in its history," Nardin said.

"Rather than see the building fall into the hands of a developer who wouldn't respect the historic foundations, he wanted it preserved as an archeological site." His first marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife, Berna Nardin, a former teacher and translator whom he married in 1982, and by the four children he and his first wife adopted.

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