FLORENCEVILLE-BRISTOL, New Brunswick — A grateful community said good-bye to Wallace McCain on Friday, the corporate genius who transformed this rural backwater into the nerve centre of a global food giant.
The funeral service from Toronto was fed live by video to two churches in Florenceville–Bristol: the small Anglican church used by the McCain family when they were in town, and a larger Baptist church that was able to accommodate up to 700 people.
As former premier Frank McKenna said in his touching eulogy to McCain, this was where McCain was most at home “in the potato fields, the factory floor and the backwoods of New Brunswick.”
The hundreds of people who came to the churches to remember McCain were his people, and many had known him most of his life.
“I started at the McCain plant in 1960, working on frozen peas,” Joan Tompkins, who grew up in Florenceville, said on her way into the Church of the Good Shepherd.
“I grew up here so I know what it was like before they set up their business. We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them. We would just be a ghost town as far as I’m concerned.”
When asked how the McCains had changed the community, Tompkins said it’s difficult to know where to start, pointing out the many buildings, streets and businesses that carry the family name.
“We have a library now,” she said. “We didn’t even have a library in the high school when I was going to it.
“We have a fitness center — we have so many things. We even have an art gallery, which would have been unheard of in the old days. Just look at this town — it’s flourishing. When I was growing up, hardly any of the buildings were painted. It looked sort of derelict and there was really no work. They made work.”
Wallace McCain died on May 13 at his home in Toronto after a 14-month battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 81.
He and his late brother, Harrison, founded McCain Foods Ltd. in 1957 in Florenceville. The company is now one of the largest frozen food enterprises in the world with annual sales of over $6 billion and 53 plants on six continents.
Its international headquarters is still in Florenceville, and the company has said there are no plans to change that despite the fact that both founding brothers now are gone.
For the past 16 years, Wallace was chairman of Toronto-based Maple Leaf Foods Ltd., although he remained vice-chairman of McCains and still owned a third of the company.
During the service, McCain’s children acknowledged those who gathered in the Florenceville churches to watch the telecast.
“Florenceville shaped our father and our family and is very much a part of our souls,” Eleanor McCain, one of Wallace’s two daughters, said as she thanked those watching in Carleton County.
Scott McCain did likewise, nothing that although his father had lived in Toronto for many years, he remained a New Brunswicker at heart.
Among those watching in the Baptist church was Paul Foster, the principal of the old Juniper High School when McCain graduated.
“I remember when he went up to get the prizes, I said ‘You might as well stand here’ because he took them all. He was a wonderful student. Very, very smart,” he recalled, adding that he and his brother Harrison McCain complemented each other well in business.
“Harrison was the one who got an idea and put everything together, but he wasn’t a detail man. Wallace was a detail man. Harrison could get the deal ready, but Wallace was the one that did all the math on it and put it all together.”
McCain’s impact on the larger world was testified to by Scott Van Orman who came to the Florenceville funeral from the state capital in Maine to represent Gov. Paul LePage.
“The McCain name is very well known in Maine,” Van Orman said.
“It’s a very big business — very supportive of the state of Maine and very integral to the state of Maine.”
LePage said in a statement Van Orman carried with him that the passing of Wallace McCain marks the end of an era.
“No more are the days of an old-school style businessman who could, with a handshake, strike a deal. Nor is a word-is-my-bond approach as good as today’s contract. What has not been lost, however, is the appreciation that so many farmers have for Mr. McCain.”
Lynn Sheppard, who worked for both Wallace and Scott McCain, said the patriarch’s presence was always felt in Florenceville.
“He was a kind man who thought of the people – a regular, down to earth person but a brilliant businessman,” she said.
“He never walked by a person without saying hello and almost knew everyone by name.”
There were a few tears in the church as the McCains spoke about their father, as well as much laughter when former premier Frank McKenna described his colourful personality — and even more colourful choice of language.
But as the family slowly escorted the casket from the downtown Toronto church on the big screen, the only movement in Florenceville was a warm spring breeze that carried with it the faint smell of french fries cooking in the McCain plant.