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Eric Charman: From rags to riches, he was all in

Death at 88 has ended the colourful career of Eric Charman. He died at Saanich Peninsula Hospital on March 6 surrounded by family after having, characteristically, made a few last-minute calls.
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Eric Charman at his grand piano in 2007.

Death at 88 has ended the colourful career of Eric Charman.

He died at Saanich Peninsula Hospital on March 6 surrounded by family after having, characteristically, made a few last-minute calls.

“I’m on my way out … this is farewell,” Charman told friends just hours before his chosen departure time.

Once a lonely and penniless orphan who came to Victoria at age 21, Charman became a philanthropic phenomenon and cultural catalyst in the city, creating a life full of friends. He never finished school but was presented with an honorary law degree from the University of Victoria.

Famous for his musical extravaganzas and galas, Charman made it seem easy and fun to raise millions.

“I want to go over the top,” was his rallying cry.

He was a virtuoso in his use of the matching donation in fundraising, said longtime friend and lawyer Mark Horne. “He could parlay a seed gift into an amazing sum, the way Liszt could play the piano.”

And while Charman could be forceful and had an inexorable will that earned him the name Eric the Red, Horne said he had a gentler side. “He never made a big deal about it, but he was a dear friend and comfort to many otherwise lonely people in Victoria who didn’t have family.”

A man of action and auctions, Charman was born to wield a gavel and was his most ebullient self when behind a microphone.

He conducted more than 500 charity auctions and had an uncanny knack for removing money from people’s pockets, sometimes, famously, taking a bid “from the wall” just to juice up the competition.

Charman’s rags-to-riches story began in Guildford, England, on March 4, 1932, when he was born to an unwed mother. “In those days, it was a criminal offence for a woman to have a child out of wedlock,” he said recently.

He grew up in a series of orphanages and group homes.

“One night, I borrowed the matron’s torch, snuck out of the gates and found a policeman on his bicycle. I told him we were being maltreated.”

He was soon taken to live with a couple of pensioners whose two sons were away fighting in the war.

Charman was hopeless at school — “having nobody interested in me, nobody to encourage me, I didn’t challenge myself” — but one day heard a Mozart serenade on the radio and was transported.

“Then I heard a symphony for the first time and was excited … during my loneliest moments, music was there.”

He had a good voice and sang carols at big houses during Christmas parties, where he saw magnificent paintings for the first time, “and made up my mind to one day have pictures on my walls.”

Aiming to escape the British class system and “the nobs on the hill,” he immigrated to Canada in 1953, “when I was legally able to leave without anybody’s written permission.”

After a brief stint on a Duncan poultry farm, he moved to Victoria and got his real estate licence. “I found the secret to selling real estate was financing,” he said, and was named president of the local real estate board three times, of the national board once.

“Hard knocks spur you on,” he said simply.

As vice-president of the Junior Chamber of Commerce in 1958, he won the Canadian national public speaking championship and was soon a hot-ticket auctioneer at Rotary Club events.

“Word got around and every charity in town began using me,” he said. “I did a minimum of two a month for years. Sometimes two a night.”

In 1963, he married Shirley Wallace, whose family controlled the publicly traded Yarrows Shipyard. By then, he was seriously involved in the arts.

“I could never afford music lessons as a child, but decided this would be my main effort, to support the Conservatory of Music, Victoria Symphony and Pacific Opera … to ensure there would be bursaries for others to study music,” he said.

Shirley and Eric had a blended family of four children. Finding his mother when he was 65 changed Charman’s life.

“Suddenly, an enormous hole was filled and a terrible chip was taken off my shoulders. I felt totally different and considered writing my own biography, The Legitimate Bastard.”

He always knew how to create excitement.

Famed for grand galas, he also hosted garden parties at his Donnington Farm with the Naden Band playing or the Canadian Scottish Regiment Pipes & Drums — or both — and guests would open their wallets.

In his silver foil-lined living room, hung with 19th-century art, guests would gather to raise tens of thousands of dollars. These events always featured talented young performers, his “little nippers,” and often kicked off upcoming charity events. That way people could give twice, he realized.

The Eric and Shirley Charman Young Musicians Bursary Fund, through the Victoria Conservatory of Music, now stands at $1.25 million.

Conservatory CEO Jane Butler McGregor said this enormous gift allows young people lacking financial resources to experience the magic he found in music.

“For 60 years, Eric has been the undisputed chief rallying force for the arts in Victoria, from Pacific Opera and the conservatory, to the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria to the Canadian College of Performing Arts, Kaleidoscope Theatre and countless others,” she said.

“He used his networks and acumen to build our arts sector, organizing fundraising galas, major and capital campaigns, and ceaselessly gathering colleagues, clients, associates and friends to engage in and support the arts.”

‘I did it all for music…. It’s what saved me’

Shortly before his death, Charman said: “I did it all for music. … It’s what saved me.”

Lt.-Gov. Janet Austen rang Charman in hospital shortly before he died and, together with private secretary Jerymy Brownridge, sang a Happy Birthday duet.

“It probably was not quite what he was used to from the conservatory students,” Austen quipped, but it came from the heart.

“He was the first person in this community to reach out to me and put together a wonderful evening to welcome me here,” she said.

“He invited a large group of friends and young musicians to entertain us … He took tremendous pride in their accomplishments and had great hope for their future.

“I only knew Eric for two years, but admired his powerful personality and self-confidence. … He never thought by half measures and I never met anyone who loved life more.

“He was a remarkable person and we are so fortunate to have had the privilege and joy of having known him, to have been part of his embrace.”

Charman was “outstandingly generous” to Government House. One day, after a musical performance that he had organized, Charman announced the piano was not up to snuff. “Eric said we needed a Steinway,” Brownridge said, and immediately raised close to $200,000.

Brownridge added Charman had an audience with the Queen, after providing support for her Commonwealth Games visit.

Lawyer Michael O’Connor, president of the Government House Foundation, said: “I never met anyone with a bigger will to live, despite many serious surgeries in the last decade.

“He came to Canada with virtually nothing and was not accepted initially by the business establishment here, but built an amazingly successful real estate business, and despite being very successful, he never forgot his modest roots. He always gave back.

“We have lost a legend,” said O’Connor. “No one has done more than Eric, and always with a glint in his eye.”

He supported every lieutenant-governor dating back to the 1960s — Judith Guichon, Steven Point, Iona Campagnolo, Garde Gardom, David Lam, Bob Rogers, George Pearkes and more — and a few months before his death, he suggested to this reporter just how to write his obituary.

“I imagine my obit stretching over three, maybe four columns in the TC, so people can really see it,” he said with a chuckle.

Eric’s legacy will endure for years to come, said Kathryn Laurin, CEO of the Victoria Symphony.

“He was a force of nature, a connector of people and a nexus point for philanthropy in this community. He was bold and audacious in actions and thought, a visionary who viewed opportunities on a grand scale and was powerfully persuasive.”

Ian Rye, CEO of Pacific Opera Victoria, concurred: “Eric was one of those people who, at first meeting, is a formidable presence, but after you earned his trust, a compassionate soul revealed itself; one where art, music and friendship reigned.”

Charman was instrumental in establishing the Egon Baumann Foundation that granted millions of dollars to benefit the musical arts here, including giving $500,000 to help create Pacific Opera’s Baumann Centre.

Rye said one of his first introductions to Charman was at a morning meeting at the Empress.

“After serving us coffee and offering cream, the waiter revealed from under a napkin a bottle of Mr. Charman’s Cream, known to the rest of us as Bailey’s Irish,” he said.

“That he liked his coffee sweet, not bitter, says it all.”

Retired B.C. privacy commissioner David Flaherty, another committed arts supporter, called Charman “the Godfather of philanthropy of arts and music support in Victoria.”

“He excelled at philanthropy and no one had a larger Rolodex,” he said.

“We will be telling stories about Eric Charman for a long time.”

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