“He was the most honourable, most gentlemanly person I knew,” said Sam Holloway, an electrician and publisher. “I didn’t know anybody like that growing up. Even the way Dave walked: so straight, so proud. He had what the Romans called dignatus.”
Robertson commanded an undeniable presence, and his handsome face beamed an arresting intensity.
When he smiled, it was as warm and inescapable as an embrace.
When he glared, it left a raw, scurrying anxiety, and no uncertainty as to the wrongness of whatever had preceded it.
His family, friends, employees and even business partners loved him deeply, and many, like Holloway, attributed their success and livelihood, in whole or in part, to his generosity.
But it is unlikely too many understood the man, a contradiction of grand extreme.
Robertson was born January 20, 1936, in Edmonton, Alberta.
His soldier father, David Macfarlane Robertson was posted overseas. Wife Janet Darling Hughes was left to raise young David, and his younger siblings, brother Frederick and sister Marken largely alone. The first decade of her marriage was a struggle to feed and clothe them on the proceeds of her door-to-door sales and her weekly, hour-long radio program for housewives.
Though he was endowed with an extraordinary intelligence all his own, Robertson was always equally adept at absorbing life’s lessons from others with equal parts rapidity and humility. And once he learned a valuable lesson, it was neither retired from practice nor forgotten.
He respected, if somewhat fearfully, the strength with which women approach their burden; he paid his respects as the first employer in Yukon to offer his female workers on-the-job daycare when he produced the legislative Hansard, and he did it grandly. During his 30-year involvement, Robertson’s Hansard was pronounced the most efficient and meticulous in the commonwealth and he earned lifelong loyalty from the women who lovingly referred to themselves as his “harem.”
He also decided early in life he did not want to be poor.
With no money for tuition, Robertson joined the Canadian military primarily to afford a university education, which he completed with excellence.
In an uncommonly candid memorandum, his commanding officer characterized young Cadet Robertson as “something of an individualist,” who rationalized away the duties he disliked performing as “‘not worth doing,’” and who called military life “‘a largely foolish thing.’”
Though Commandant J.G. Archambault mockingly quipped Robertson had “‘got philosophy,’” he observed, “He is intelligent, cheerful, a good friend to those who know him, and has an above-average interest and understanding of human nature.
“He has a good deal of ability and perseveres on crusades which he takes to be his own … Whatever he decides to do, he should do well.”
Robertson was appointed mayor of Camp Takhini during his term in Whitehorse, but the military put far too much constraint on his appetite for adventure.
He had come to the territory with his young bride, Barbara (nee Stephenson), a lovely, well-bred and sheltered rural girl he had courted in her home province of Quebec. When she turned 18 and completed secretarial school, her parents allowed her to marry Robertson. Soon after, they had a daughter, Beverley. Barbara was pregnant with their second child, David (Steve), when she suspected infidelity and left her husband of less than five years, taking their daughter and moving back to her parents’ farm near Montreal.
After he quit the army and his marriage collapsed, Robertson spent a brief period as a singleton.
Women coveted the handsome charmer for his elegance in conversation, his love for fun, and his strange, dry wit.
Robertson was serving as the manager of Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous when he met his second wife, also named Barbara, who worked the front desk at the Whitehorse Inn, the Main Street hotel that also housed his office.
Over daily coffee breaks and the footloose after-hours parties that would spontaneously erupt in the bar or the bowling alley of the hotel, the young co-workers got to know each other better.
“He’s always been able to make me laugh,” she says.
“I just liked his company.”
Though she was fond of him, she had no designs on family life and marriage, to him nor anyone else.
“David seemed to be really popular with the teachers, I remember,” she laughs. “So, I just was number four or five, I think, on the list.”
An orphan of indomitable independence, the world-wise Barbara had emigrated from England to Canada on her own as a young woman, after she herself had served a short term in the military. She had hoped to continue seeing the world, vowing she was soon bound for an adventure in Australia.
Her beau gradually shed his other ladies, and Barbara moved from number five to forever maintain the No. 1 position. Barbara chides self-effacingly that he felt compassion for her because she had no parents.
But Robertson was clearly enamoured with her fierce will, her pretty face and her petite figure. Potential never escaped him, and he seemed to know instinctively that her earthy, logical and practical ways would provide much-needed grounding to his dreamy ones.
Robertson romanced her with late-night, wintertime dips at Takhini Hotsprings, where they would stare together at the northern lights through the thick ice mist.
“I’d never seen them before until I came to the Yukon,” she remembers.
“I was just, just so impressed with them. I just loved them. I couldn’t get enough of them.”
They were broke, and what they did take home went to pay a debt Robertson incurred when he consigned, before their marriage, a business loan for a small cantina on behalf of one of his many female friends.
She sold all the food supplies and skipped town without a word, leaving Robertson with a pile of dirty dishes and a failing business that owed to every supplier in town.
Robertson refused to file for bankruptcy, instead making agreements with each one to pay off the debts by the month.
He was imaginative and visionary, even shrewd. Yet when called upon to estimate the goodness and decency of others, Robertson could be naive as a child.
Dressed up for a promised birthday dinner out with her beau, Barbara came upon her husband commencing an evening’s drudgery, flipping hamburgers for the eatery’s diners.
There was nothing to do but pull up the sleeves of her dress, and begin to wash the dishes.
Her birthday dinner was postponed, but she bore no grudge toward Robertson.
“I was mad at the ones who had done the dirty on him,” she recalls.
“But then, afterwards, I did find out that this was a typical thing with Dave. He’d get caught in all these sort of things, and it’s amazing how many awful people there are. He was so honourable, he could not believe that other people weren’t.”
Still, his blind refusal to believe anyone was awful seemed to draw out the goodness in people.
“He had great confidence, faith, and expectations of the goodness of people,” said an emotional Larry Bagnell, in eulogizing his dear friend and staunchest political ally. “And I, and, I am sure, many here this afternoon, commit to you, Dave, that we too will try to carry on your legacy of great faith in all human beings, no matter who they are.”
Robertson’s lust for challenge and his thirst for wealth were unstoppable. It took 13 years to pay off the debts from the cantina he had consigned without reservation. By then, Barbara had given birth to her three children: daughters, Catherine and Lisa Dayle, and son, Douglas.
“He’d be really feeling down that evening when something had happened,” says Barbara. “But the next morning, he’d say ‘You know, I was thinking, if we did this, or we did that.
“He’d bounce back. I never met anyone who’d bounce back as quickly as Dave did. He was just fantastic for it. I’d stew for ages, but not Dave.”
He was a dreamer, to be sure, says Barbara, who used to sing him a fitting song from The King and I.
“He has a thousand dreams that won’t come true. You know that he believes in them, and that’s enough for you.”
But with an industriousness and work ethic on par with his spirit for entrepreneurship and risk-taking, success was bound to prevail.
He bought the then News-Advertiser, from Ken Shortt. In a climate that seemed hospitable only to Tories, Robertson faced an uphill struggle selling advertising, but eventually created an award-winning newspaper that he sold to his son, Steve. Doug Bell, who officiated the memorial service, recalled bringing home more awards for writing, advertising, design, cartoons and photography than the combined total of David Black, who then owned some 15 newspapers in BC.
Other business ventures, such as construction and retail, began to pay off, and, by the early to mid-1980s, the Robertsons were comfortably wealthy, indeed.
But his incurable workaholism (he moved his computer home for the last two weeks of his life, so that he could continue working when his advanced-stage cancer rendered him too weak to make the trip to his downtown office), his modest existence and his reluctance to seek visible positions of power left many to wonder why he pursued wealth with such gusto.
He resisted public acknowledgement for his philanthropy, and, though he enjoyed a lifelong, behind-the-scenes role municipally, territorially and federally, he steered clear of public political life.
Bell paid final tribute to Robertson with Heart of the North, the Robert Service poem moved the mourners to tearful, breathless silence:
And when I come to the dim trail-end,
I who have been Life’s rover,
This is all I would ask, my friend,
Over and over and over:
A little space on a stony hill
With never another near me,
Sky o’ the North that’s vast and still,
With a single star to cheer me;
Star that gleams on a moss-grey stone
Graven by those who love me—
There would I lie alone, alone,
With a single pine above me;
Pine that the north wind whinneys through—
Oh, I have been Life’s lover!
But there I’d lie and listen to
Eternity passing over.