Vin Coyne, special to the Peace Arch News
When Bob Hassell climbed onto his bulldozer to help dig the foundation for White Rock’s first hospital in l951, he had no idea of the future leadership roles he would play in securing state-of-the-art health-care facilities for the community.
Then, Hassell was just one of many volunteers donating equipment, materials, labour and money to help build a 45-bed facility at a cost of $500,000.
He would return several times over the next six decades to head further expansion and acquisition of hospital facilities for what became Peace Arch Hospital – and ultimately make a major financial donation to help fund $24 million in health services.
Hassell died May 9 at his South Surrey home, ending a remarkable business career that included developments throughout the Lower Mainland, California and Florida. He was 89.
Born in Cumberland, he spent most of his life in South Surrey. With his parents and six siblings, he moved onto property on North Bluff Road (now l6 Avenue) in l936, after the Sumas Prairie flood the year earlier wiped out the family farm.
He and brothers Reg, Lawrence and Dick cleared the land with a horse, cart and scraper blade, selling and delivering the wood for $4.50 per cord.
In 1937, he and Reg used the same method to open North Bluff Road from the planned King George Highway (now King George Boulevard) west to their property. Later, they purchased an early-model tracked tractor to push the road through to Stayte Road and, in the early l940s, the two Hassells got the contract from Surrey to open North Bluff from Stayte to Johnston, then later through to Ocean Park.
Shortly after the Second World War, they were joined by their brothers to form Hassell Bros. Bulldozing Contractors.
The new company was part of early road and subdivision development in White Rock and Surrey, clearing land on the east-end hillside. Later, they took on major projects, including the Lake City Industrial Park in Burnaby, runway preparation for Comox airport and the then-large Riverside residential development in Surrey.
In 1946, Bob married Florence Lapierre, whose grandparents had settled in the Hazelmere area in 1907. They remained lifelong partners in business, recreation and community service.
Only a few years after his first hospital excavation project, Hassell returned to play a much more dramatic role in the next chapter of hospital expansion.
By 1958, the hospital was running at 100 per cent occupancy. The next few years saw services strained to the limit. After five years of further planning and negotiations, the board received word that Victoria had given approval in principle for a new hospital of 100 beds, in the first stage, and from 200 to 250 beds in the future.
Leading the battle to complete the promised facility was Hassell, who headed the building committee before serving several terms as board chairman.
His tough business style, his ability to cut through bureaucratic red tape and his disdain for government delay tactics earned him the good-natured title of “board emperor.”
When Surrey council blew cool on a 1966 hospital request to sell municipal bonds to help finance the latest building project – mainly because the hospital carried a White Rock name – Hassell got immediate approval to change its name to Peace Arch District Hospital “to better reflect the areas served by the facility.”
After a series of tough, closed-door negotiations and a sod-turning ceremony in open defiance of a provincial stop-work order, Hassell was able to push through the facility in a form very close to what was originally planned. The six-storey, 108-bed acute facility, costing some $3.5 million, officially opened in July 1968.
Despite his no-nonsense public image, Hassell was private about his business and personal achievements, avoiding accolades and public appearances.
The Hassell family continued to support the hospital over the years and, in 2007, Bob and Florence Hassell donated $3 million to the Partners in Caring Campaign, the largest single gift ever made to the foundation.
The acute-care tower was named in their honor in 2008.
Hassell served as honorary chair of the partners campaign, which so far has raised $24 million to finance five major projects, four of which have now been completed. In 2009, the Hassells were recipients of the Giving Hearts Award sponsored by the Association of Fundraising Professionals for outstanding philanthropy.
The Hassell family has asked that donations in his memory be made to the hospital foundation.