June 22, 2020

University mourns alumnus, philanthropist, Hon. LLD and former Board of Governors vice-chair Charlie Fischer

Campus flag lowered June 22, 2020
Charlie Fischer portrait
Charlie Fischer portrait Jazhart Studios

Calgary lost its gentle giant last Wednesday. Charlie Fischer might have been a physically tall presence, but the shadow he cast as a ‘tall timber’ on this community was much longer.

As a journalist who covered the energy sector while Charlie was CEO of Nexen, I had the opportunity to interview him on many occasions — but I first met Charlie as a young investment banker in 1993, bidding to get the mandate for a fairness opinion as the company he was leading, Encor, was the subject of a takeover bid from Talisman Energy. In walked a tall man, with twinkling blue eyes and what I soon learned was his trademark handlebar moustache. 

When I learned of Charlie’s passing, I went back to look at all those interviews, the speeches he had given and the many bits of advice he had offered to me over the years.

While much had to do with business, the energy sector and its challenges, so much more had to do with community, public policy and philanthropy.

As a CEO, community leader and philanthropist, tireless volunteer and someone who refused to take no for an answer when he felt something could be done better, Charlie truly wanted to leave the world in a better place than how he found it.

And he did.

Whether it was as a member of UCalgary’s Board of Governors — serving two six-year terms during which he was vice-chair — spearheading the fundraising efforts that catalyzed the building of the Alberta Children’s Hospital, or being deeply involved with Hull Child and Family Services, Charlie passionately believed in what was possible when people came together in pursuit of a common goal. His world wasn’t about silos — it was about reaching across disciplines and partisan aisles to find the solution where all parties felt their needs were addressed, and met.

Supporting the arts was also part of his DNA, and when asked to be involved with the National Music Centre, Charlie chaired the building committee. You could say Charlie broke the mould of the stereotypical engineer.

Charlie was a gentle leader; an authentic leader and someone who inspired others to be part of his journey, whether as CEO or in his various community undertakings. He was a connector, often being the first to support a charitable endeavour — which helped to inspire the support of others.

Charlie’s goals were simple — to do what was best for the city, the province and the country; there was little room for partisanship.

That meant he wasn’t afraid to call out government when he felt priorities were misplaced. A speech he gave in 2006 focused on the importance of education, and of increasing access to education — in spite of the boom that was underway in Alberta — as being a critical element to the province’s long-term economic prosperity.

Charlie was twice a UCalgary graduate and strongly believed education was what gave everyone opportunities — no matter where you came from. That drove the generosity he and Joanne showed to the university over the years, endowing scholarships, bursaries and supporting research initiatives. He was determined to see UCalgary lifted into the Calgary community — and for its reach to extend far beyond the city.

His commitment to improving lives through education extended to Yemen, where Nexen had been active since 1993, and where the company had sponsored a program to bring Yemeni students to Calgary to study — enabling them to go back to their country and make a difference in their own communities.

Whether as chair of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, as Nexen CEO or as a private citizen, Charlie was a passionate advocate for the energy industry, but also for what we call today — the ‘and’ conversation. His commitment to the importance of corporate social responsibility saw him invited to the United Nations to be part of a summit — and have dinner with Secretary General Kofi Annan — examining that very issue. He gave voice to the intersection of energy, the environment and the economy long before the polarized rhetoric of today took root and was part of the Clean Energy Dialogue between Canada and the U.S. 

Of course, as someone born and raised in Western Canada, Charlie was determined that the West had a voice in policy development, which led to his long involvement with the Canada West Foundation, serving as vice-chair during his term. This translated to the national level through his board position with the C.D. Howe Institute.  Without question, discussing policy with Charlie was always a good intellectual joust — where different views and ideas were welcome and the conclusion might be simply agreeing to disagree, but with new perspectives gained.

His retirement from Nexen in 2008 took many by surprise — but for Charlie, it was simply time to support Joanne, who, at the time, was midway through her tenure as the chancellor of UCalgary, and to make room for his diverse interests. 

His job, he said, didn’t define him as a person.

And that was true.

From his penchant for travel with Joanne and his daughters Kate and Lindsay, to his passion for the outdoors — he was an awesome downhill skier, weekly tennis matches and community commitments, Charlie was never idle.

In recent years — and due to the health challenges faced first by family members and later, himself — Charlie turned his energies toward health care, determined to spark fundamental change in health-care delivery to see the patient needs come first, not the system’s. He kept saying ‘there had to be a better way’ and in typical Charlie fashion, he was determined to find it. He remained unwavering in his commitment to the Alberta Children’s Hospital and was instrumental in the development of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI) — a partnership between UCalgary and the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation.

Charlie received many honours throughout his lifetime, and the University of Calgary was fortunate to have the opportunity to honour Charlie with an honorary degree, Doctor of Laws, Honoris Causa and as a Distinguished Business Leader through the Haskayne School of Business. He and Joanne were named to the Order of Canada — a recognition he said was deeply moving as it represented, by his country and his fellow Canadians, recognition of his years seeking to make a difference.

Charlie was truly a living example of what Winston Churchill said — ‘We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give’. His compassionate, community leadership will be missed.