FLORENCEVILLE-BRISTOL, New Brunswick — Flags are flying at half-staff in Florenceville — the town the McCains built — to mark the death of Wallace McCain.
News of McCain’s death at the age of 81 spread quickly through this town, the french fry capital of the world, where Wallace and his late brother, Harrison, began McCain Foods more than half a century ago.
A casual visitor to the town on the St. John River probably would wonder why this place is not called McCainville. The name McCain is everywhere, not only on businesses and potato sheds and sprawling plants, but also on the clothes people wear, even their hats.
On Saturday, just hours after McCain died at his home in Toronto, the name was also on many lips as people remembered both Wallace and Harrison — two corporate giants who transformed this tiny community of about 1,600 people into a key player in the world food market.
“It’s like a piece of Florenceville is gone now,” Andrea McAloon Callahan said from McAloon’s store on the main drag, where the McCain brothers had their first produce offices many years ago.
“It’s not the same as when they were here. The feeling in the community is different. There isn’t that same connection.”
Callahan has lived in Florenceville all of her life and vividly remembers how Wallace McCain would come bursting through the store door with a big “Hello” for everyone.
“I was hoping he’d get home one last time,” she said.
She said Harrison, Wallace and their families were an integral part of the community. Her first swimming coach was Michael McCain, Wallace’s son and now the head of Maple Leaf Foods Ltd.
Callahan said Margie McCain, Wallace’s wife, was involved in everything — a fabulous and tireless organizer.
“We miss the whole family,” she said looking across the river to the hillside where the McCain homes are located.
Although people said the town has changed since Wallace McCain moved to Toronto, they said there’s no denying the enormous influence he and Harrison had on the community during their lives.
“If it wasn’t for the McCains, this place would be a ghost town,” Bernard McSheffery said as he loaded his truck at a country store.
McCain Foods also has a great influence across the border in Maine. According to its website, McCain, a major buyer of Aroostook County potatoes, acquired its plant in Easton, Maine, in 1976 and it is currently among the largest frozen potato operations on the East Coast with more than 500 employees.
In 2000 the company broke ground on a new $100 million potato processing plant in Easton, creating 200 new jobs.
The company also operates processing facilities in Wisconsin, Idaho, California, Nebraska, Illinois, New Jersey, Indiana and Washington.
Although people knew Wallace was dying from pancreatic cancer, news of his death still was a shock.
“It’s a terrible loss,” Jodi O’Neill said as he lowered the flags in front of the McCain Potato Processing Technology Centre in the western New Brunswick town. “He was a great supporter of our community.”
“Wallace McCain was the quintessential Canadian,” said former New Brunswick premier and close friend Frank McKenna. “Nobody has characterized my love for the country better than Wallace McCain, a person who’s superb at highly competitive private enterprise, a leader at creating great wealth and huge amounts of economic return in business, while being extraordinarily supportive of progressive social programs.
“He was kind of a classical Canadian who has classical Canadian values,” McKenna said. “Hard work, perseverance, belief in the private sector but supportive of progressive social programming and progressive causes.”
Industrialist J.K. Irving expressed his sadness on hearing the news of his friend’s death.
“I am truly saddened by the passing of my good friend Wallace McCain,” Irving said.
“Our relationship goes back a great number of years and I have many wonderful memories. Wallace was a very fine person. He not only made his mark in the business world, he made a difference by giving back — both in time and resources — to many community causes. He never forgot the place he was very proud to call home.”
Bill Hoyt, former chief justice of New Brunswick, remembered his friend as a devoted family man who loved the province and particularly Florenceville.
“He was very faithful to his friends, particularly his old friends, those from Florenceville and those who had been with McCain Foods for a long time,” Hoyt said.
“And as a New Brunswicker, he always remembered his roots,” Hoyt said, adding that over the years, McCain made large donations that got some press and small ones that no one ever knew about, such as fixing up cemeteries and churches around Florenceville.
Tim Bliss, who worked for 32 years at McCain Foods, was raising money for a church once after retiring to Halifax, Nova Scotia. He called Wallace for advice. Wallace gave him some, along with a $10,000 boost for his campaign. “Don’t you tell anyone I gave you this money,” Bliss was told by his former boss.
Wallace McCain was a Companion of the Order of Canada, a member of the Order of New Brunswick, and is an inductee into the Canadian Business Hall of Fame. He had honorary degrees from Mount Allison University and the University of King’s College, the University of New Brunswick and the University of Toronto, among others.
All his life, Wallace McCain was an unpretentious man whose manner and persona gave no hint of the extent of his achievements. In this way, he was perhaps his brother’s opposite — Harrison always an elbows-out, gregarious extrovert, and Wallace, quiet and unassuming. In fact, Harrison, who was for decades the public face of McCain Foods, was widely assumed to be the person who ran the company. Only insiders knew that Wallace’s contribution was equally key. As K.C. Irving once remarked, Harrison was the sail, Wallace the rudder.
Wallace understood the confusion as to his role, more than once joking — as co-CEO, no less — that his job was to peel the potatoes.
Wallace McCain is survived by his wife, Margaret Norrie McCain, sons Scott and Michael and daughters Martha and Eleanor. Harrison, his brother, died of heart failure in 2004.
To read more about Wallace McCain go to the Telegraph Journal website.
Writers Charles Enman and Jennifer Campbell of the Telegraph-Journal contributed to this report.