One night in Montreal in the 1940s, Martin Prosserman went for a walk. The family lived in the storied neighbourhood of St-Laurent Boulevard at St-Viateur Street. The young Prosserman could have easily gone to the Montreal Pool Room and all it represented, but as fate would have it, he instead wandered into the YMHA on Mont-Royal Avenue.
There, for a nickel, he got a rare treat: a clean towel, a bar of soap, and a hot shower. He would learn to box, dance and swim, and met his future wife there. The “Y” kept him out of trouble.
Some 65 years later, in Toronto, where he now lived, Prosserman signed a cheque for $12 million to rebrand the Bathurst Jewish Community Centre in his name, saying, “I thank you all for letting me pay off this debt – a debt I incurred as a child in Montreal, and something I consider myself fortunate to be able to do.”
The Prosserman JCC, located on the Sherman Campus of the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, opened in 2010. A much-expanded facility, at over 100,000 square feet, is slated to open early next year.
A tireless businessman and powerhouse philanthropist, Prosserman died on April 6. He was 87 years old.
He was “a true leader and visionary in this community and throughout Canada,” UJA said in a statement. “His generous spirit has been life-changing for thousands of people and the legacy he has left behind will continue to impact lives in such positive and meaningful ways for generations to come.”
Prosserman’s is truly a rags-to-riches tale.
He was born in Montreal in 1931 to penurious Ukrainian immigrants who moved to Toronto’s Kensington Market neighbourhood when their son was still a baby. Young Martin was around eight when the clan returned to Montreal. His alcoholic father abandoned the family, and two of their flat’s four rooms had to be rented to boarders.
Still, Prosserman recalled a happy childhood. He attended Montreal’s fabled Baron Byng High School, where, as he would recall, things were “very simple: It was 99 per cent first-generation Canadians, 90 per cent Jewish, and everyone was poor. That about sums it up.” He was class president every year but one.
He was nine when he began running errands after school and on weekends at a men’s clothing store, and just 19 when he and a cousin opened their own menswear shop. Later, Prosserman rented a loft, where he started Golden Brand Clothing, a factory that made suits.
His work ethic was legendary. “I put my head down and went to work,” he said, sometimes for 22 hours a day. In 1980, he founded Moores the Suit People, and never looked back. He once proudly noted that every fifth man’s suit sold in Canada was from Moores.
In 1996, he sold Moores when it had some 100 stores and 2,000 employees. That year, Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital’s surgery department was renamed the Ellen and Martin Prosserman Surgical Centre.
Prosserman went on to found Augusta Holdings, a private investment firm in Toronto, with his sons Gary, Ron and Brian.
His other philanthropic efforts included the Ellen and Martin Prosserman Centre for Neuromuscular Diseases at Toronto’s University Health Network, and in 2017, the Martin Prosserman Fund, which subsidizes JCC memberships through a gift of $1 million over five years.
As his son Ron eulogized at his father’s funeral, among Prosserman’s favourite sayings was, “Money is like manure: pile it high and it stinks; spread it around and it does good.”
Prosserman is survived by three sons, nine grandchildren, one great-grandson, and a sister, Frances. His wife of 46 years, Ellen (née Litner), died in 2002.