Ottawa philanthropist and community builder Dave Smith passes away at age 87

Smith was founder and honorary chair of Dave Smith Youth Treatment Centre that helps youth and family members with addiction, mental health and counselling services
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Ottawa businessman and philanthropist Dave Smith has passed away at age 87.

While Ottawa mourns the passing of community pillar Dave Smith, his longtime dream of building a new residential addiction centre for youth will continue to live on.

The urgency to build a new facility has grown stronger than ever, said Mike Beauchesne, executive director of the Dave Smith Youth Treatment Centre (DSYTC).

“I think (Dave's passing) just breathes additional energy into it and motivation and inspiration for all of us to get this done,” he said. “It’s part of his legacy.”

Smith, 87, who passed away peacefully and comfortably, was the founder of the eponymous treatment centre and served as its honorary chair. The DSYTC has been rallying governments for funding in order to build a single building in Ottawa that would consolidate the existing three facilities under one roof, allowing the centre to cut down on wait times and to help more youth struggling with drug addiction and mental health issues.

The local businessman was one of the city’s greatest philanthropists of his time, giving back to countless charities, both in Ottawa and beyond, and touching the lives of many. It’s estimated he helped to raise more than $150 million over his lifetime.

“He was always looking out for the greater good,” said Beauchesne. “He just felt we all had an obligation to help those in need. He was bigger than life in many ways.”

Beauchesne’s relationship with Smith goes back 20 years to when he first arrived to the treatment centre as part of a student placement.

“I got to know him and love him on a personal level,” said Beauchesne, describing Smith as humble and joyful.

“He would be able to own a room with his laughter and his welcoming demeanor. He was somebody who wasn’t just there as a figurehead but as someone who wanted to roll up his sleeves and do the work.”

Certainly, Smith was witnessed over the years personally serving food to guests, peddling raffle tickets to a crowd and selling off live auction items at fundraising dinners around town. He would enthusiastically greet everyone with shouts of “Hey o!” He often came up with clever ways to solicit donations, such as telling his audience: “What you give today we didn’t have yesterday.” My personal favourite was the way he’d refer to a 40-plus-year-old woman as “young lady.” Such a charmer he was.

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Dave Smith is flanked by Cindy Manor, director of philanthropy at the Dave Smith Youth Treatment Centre Foundation, and Mike Beauchesne, executive director of the Dave Smith Youth Treatment Centre, at a Wild West-themed fundraising dinner for the treatment centre.

So grateful was Cindy Manor to Dave Smith and the centre for saving her son’s life that she now works for the treatment centre foundation as its senior director of philanthropy. As for her son, Hunter Knight, 22, he’s totally turned his life around and is voluntarily raising money toward the construction of a new building.

Smith knew raising money to build a new facility wasn't going to be easy, she said. 

“For the longest time, nobody wanted to talk about mental health and addiction," she pointed out.

Manor said her son developed a special bond with Smith, who requested to see him before he passed away. The young man told his hero and mentor how he was going to keep fundraising, and promised him that he would stay out of trouble.

"Dave laughed," said Manor. "Then, Hunter said to him: ‘I’m going to keep the train moving forward to get this centre built’ and Dave whispered, ‘I’ll be on that train, Hunter.'”

Smith was involved in the organization’s board meetings up until late last year and, if he couldn't make it in person, continued to stay connected, said Manor.

“I’m just really sad that we didn’t get this built while he was alive; that’s my biggest regret, but I strongly believe we will get it done and we’ll help more youth, because so many kids need our help,” she said.

The clients and staff at the DSYTC’s three sites plan to honour Smith in a variety of ways over the coming days and weeks. A public memorial is to be held at a later date when health restrictions permit.

– caroline.obj.ca