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July 2014 Print Issue

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'Calgary's been good to me'

This is a look at a new biography of Calgary businessman and philanthropist Sam Switzer. As a businessman, Sam Switzer built apartment buildings, hotels and shopping malls — leaving an indelible mark on the urban landscape of Calgary.

As a philanthropist, he quietly donated millions of dollars to the arts, social agencies, educational institutes and medical research programs — helping to improve the lives of untold Calgarians.

The story of Switzer's life is detailed in the biography Seeking the Summit: Sam Switzer's Story of Building and Giving. Sydney Sharpe, the book's author, and its publisher Frontenac House are both Calgary-based.


Sharpe says that Switzer's life has been characterized by selflessly contributing to the various communities to which he belongs.

"What really drew me to Sam is his whole philosophy of life, which is to enrich your community and not yourself," she says. "He believes that you enrich yourself by what you give, not by what you take."

Born in Calgary in 1926, Switzer was the youngest child —and only son — of Polish immigrants. To help his struggling family out, he began working at the age of five — hired by a pharmacy to deliver prescription medication on his bicycle.

His business career started when, while still a young man, he constructed a retail building on land behind his family's small grocery store in east Calgary.

City 'Pioneer'

The book looks at Switzer's business accomplishments, as well as his personal history.

The growth of Switzer's career as a land developer and businessman mirrors the growth of Calgary as a city. Switzer built apartment buildings to house the city's growing population, as well as shopping malls, the Elbow River Casino, and the unique Summit Hotel — a since-vanished building renowned for its circular shape and for the colourful nightlife in its top-floor bar.

Sharpe says that Switzer is a "pioneer" in the city.

"He has been an integral part of the growth of the city," Sharpe says. "He has been part of making the city what it is today.

"He helped revitalize the city. Before that, he helped build it up."

The book not only looks at Switzer's successes. Sharpe says that Switzer is not afraid to admit that some of his business plans didn't always work out as he planned — such as a car dealership that never quite got off the ground despite his high hopes for it. His failures became learning experiences.

"His life is really the life of Calgary," Sharpe says. "It's one of building the city and recognizing a few judgments that might have been a little different, but always working to make it a better place."

Sharpe says that Switzer's upbringing and his close-knit family had a great influence on his later interest in social and cultural philanthropy.

"He grew up in poverty, but he remembers the good stories and the love that he was given by his family," Sharpe says. "That we have to give and share what we have was a big part of his life from an early age."

Foundation supports many causes

At 87-years-old, Switzer has retired from active involvement in his business interests but is remains very involved with his philanthropy work. In 2007, along with his wife Betty, Switzer created the Sam and Betty Switzer Foundation.

The foundation aims to supports medical research, social programs, education, and the arts. One of the foundation's many undertakings has been to provide scholarships to students at Mount Royal University. Each year, a grant pays the tuition of 20 students who are single parents.

Betty Switzer passed away in 2008. Sharpe says Betty Switzer shared her husband's desire to give back. She was as hard working as he was," Sharpe says. "Once they put their love for their community and humanity together, they gave Calgary something beyond benefit.

"He really wants to honour her memory."

Sharpe says that Switzer's greatest public legacy is that he has helped Calgary become a "better" city.

"For Sam, it's really very simple: you give and don't take. It's true that when you give, your world expands."

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