He gave away a fortune and remained anonymous for years

Eldon Foote gave away his vast fortune in order to make Edmonton a better place. But he remained virtually unknown in the city he left behind in 1967. In June, he was finally uncloaked as giving the largest ever donation to a charitable foundation in Canadian history.

It took an ugly court battle with his family to reveal details about the very private, very rich Eldon Foote

Multi-millionaire Eldon Foote, seen here with his third wife Anne, left much of his vast fortune to charities in Edmonton and Australia — remaining mostly anonymous until years after his death. (Simon Schluter/Fairfax Media)

Eldon Foote is far from a household name in the city that has benefited from the millions of dollars he's given. Aside from Foote Field at the University of Alberta — a well-known sports facility made possible by a not-so-well-known man — his name is rarely noted in Edmonton. 

He was just careful with his dough.— David Bentley, friend and adviser

But in addition to contributing to the field's construction, Foote, at the end of his life, donated $164 million to the Edmonton Community Foundation, the lion's share of his vast fortune.

It was the largest donation ever to a community foundation in Canada, and was not revealed by the organization until last month, 13 years after Foote's death. 

Foote's money has paid for conservation areas. It has supported children in low-income neighbourhoods and helped build recording studios and art facilities that help troubled youth stay off the streets. And it gave a tremendous boost to Women Building Futures, a fledgling charity that trains and supports women who want to work in trades such as welding, plumbing and construction.

'He did not ask that it be called Foote Field.'— Allan Warrack, friend

But Foote remains something of an enigma. A hard-driven man who used his legal know-how to avoid taxes, who gave up a lucrative law career to take up multi-level marketing, who left his family to pursue both business opportunities and a new romance, and who — after amassing a fortune — gave it away without taking credit.

The man who knew him best, longtime friend and adviser David Bentley, describes Foote as "a very determined individual," who in the end, "believed that his wealth was held in trust for the benefit of the public in general."

But the public didn't see that wealth, or know much about the very private man behind it, until after a protracted and ugly legal battle with Foote's family.

Road to riches

The son of a grain buyer and teacher, Foote was born in Hanna, Alta., in 1924. He grew up in the heart of the Depression and knew what it was like to go without, says Bentley.

"Being a Depression child, things of that nature formed his character."

He was also athletic and smart. At 14 he was awarded the Governor General's medal for scholastic achievement.

Foote initially pursued a geology degree at the University of Alberta. But the Second World War beckoned and he enlisted, only to see the Japanese surrender before he saw a day of active duty.

After leaving a lucrative legal career, Foote made his fortune selling Swipe detergent through multi-level marketing in Japan. (HK Sheung/Wikimedia Commons)

He went back to university, completing a law degree in 1948 and quickly worked his way to senior partner in the firm Bryan, Foote, Andrekson & Wilson. He married in 1950 and began raising a family of five children.

But after nearly two decades the role of successful lawyer wore thin, his marriage was floundering and, in 1967, he made the surprising switch to a fledgling multi-level marketing company in Australia — selling a detergent called Swipe.

This was around the time that similar companies like Amway were on the rise, using home-based marketing to sell household products, and Foote proved to be a prodigy in making the business grow. 

He found great success in Hong Kong and Japan and, after divorcing his first wife, married his business manager in Japan. 

Avoiding taxes

Foote also took steps to avoid paying Canadian income tax. He had spent two years travelling Australia, Europe and Asia. But he needed a home, and settled on a tiny rock in the South Pacific called Norfolk Island, an Australian protectorate with less than 2,000 people.

Norfolk Island offered a big advantage — residents and corporations paid very little tax. In the early 1970s he acquired a large tract of land overlooking the ocean and built a sprawling estate he called Foot Nort, which is island dialect for "why not." The expansive clifftop property would be Foote's home until his death in 2004.

The main living area of Foot Nort, Foote's luxurious cliffside home on Norfolk Island in the South Pacific. (Norfolk Island Real Estate)

Giving it away

Foote faced new challenges in Japan after a highly contested divorce from his second wife. He found running the company on his own exhausting and, despite making massive amounts of money, he wanted out.

He remarried again, this time to a New Zealander named Anne, and in 1997 found a buyer for his business, the Dutch conglomerate Sara Lee. That left him time to spend with Anne and an opportunity to begin a third career — philanthropy.

He donated money with little expectation of recognition. As Edmonton prepared to host the 2001 World Championships in Athletics, a sports field at the University of Alberta was badly in need of refurbishment and organizers were $2 million short.

They approached Foote, the former track athlete.

According to his friend Allan Warrack, Foote immediately called his accountant in Edmonton and asked that the entire amount be donated. 

"Here's the point. He did not ask that it be called Foote Field. The recipients decided that," Warrack says. "How do you like that for generosity?"

Court challenge

Foote was diagnosed with cancer in April 2004, and returned to Edmonton for treatment at the Cross Cancer Institute. But the disease had taken a firm grip, and he died one month later, leaving behind a will which left only a tiny fraction of his $220 million US estate to his family. (Anne got an annuity, the children got $100,000 each, according to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald.)

Canada's top community foundation donors

  • Eldon Foote, Edmonton Community Foundation. $164 million.
  • Daryl K. Seaman, Calgary Foundation. $117 million.
  • The Moffat family, The Winnipeg Foundation. $100 million.

The bulk of his fortune was left to the Edmonton Community Foundation and The Lord Mayor's Charitable Fund in Melbourne, Australia. 

Bentley, his longtime friend, was executor of the will. He believes Foote had given his children what they really needed — which was not his vast fortune. 

"He felt that if he gave his children an education and money to buy a house and left them a small amount in his will that that was enough," he said. "If they're educated they can make a living."

The family didn't see it that way. Anne and five of his children filed suit in what became a long and bitter challenge of the will, which also directed her to move out of Foot Nort within two years. 

The justice hearing the case in Alberta Court of Queen's Bench called the will "mean spirited" noting that it "essentially disinherited his immediate family."

But despite that, the challenge failed in 2009. 

End result

The Edmonton Community Foundation says Foote's donation is the largest ever to an organization of its kind in Canadian history. With returns on investment, the initial $164 million has grown to $206 million — and that's after $43 million was handed out.

Asked why the organization had finally, after so many years, revealed Foote's donation, CEO Martin Garber-Conrad said simply: "Because it was time."

"There were a lot of moving pieces. Finally everything was sorted," Garber-Conrad added. 

Bentley says the decision to give his money away can be traced back to those early days growing up in Depression-era small-town Alberta. 

"He was not a big spender even though he was making substantial income," Bentley says. "He did not have a personal jet, he did not spend money on Maseratis. He was just careful with his dough." 

"If you look back to the source of his wish to benefit mankind it really goes back to his upbringing and the early years of his life."