Fredrik S. Eaton 1938-2021
About eighteen months ago I was early for lunch with a member at one of Toronto’s finest clubs. I was guided to a sitting area to wait for my host. As I began to take a seat, I realized Fred Eaton was a couple of chairs away, waiting for his lunch companion. I had not seen Fred since my book on the demise of the family department store some twenty years ago.
“I’m Rod McQueen,” I said. “I know who you are,” he harrumphed. I sat down nearby anyway and for the next five-to-eight minutes we had a conversation that got warmer as time passed about a number of topics including the success of our respective sons. Fred had given me a lengthy interview for my book, but when it came out, he was quoted in the Toronto Star saying that he planned “to form a committee to horsewhip me.”
Fred did well when he ran Eaton’s in the 1980s as a result of a strong economy and an extraordinary executive officer named Greg Purchase. In 1991, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney named Fred as Canadian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom. He took up his post as only an Eaton could by bringing along a Rolls-Royce for town use and a yacht for holiday-making.
While he was abroad, younger brother George ran the shop until they declared bankruptcy. In a privately published memoir that came out recently, Fred wrote mostly about sailing and hunting but he did talk about retailing. He blamed George for the sad, final turn of events. In fact, the thesis of my book had been that Eaton’s was on a downward slide since the 1930s. As one who conducted extensive research on the family, I can say that Fred lived an estimable life. In addition to representing Canada with distinction, he was a philanthropist of note, lending his name and his fortune to many causes, particularly health care and the arts.
As for our relationship, I don’t say he forgave me or forgot the stories in my book. But our conversation that day showed he was a good and gracious man. Even when there was no need to be.