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RIP Ben Torchinsky

I was lucky enough to have been befriended in the Eighties by Sarah and Ben Torchinsky, two extraordinary Canadians – generous art lovers, kind friends, fabulously interesting world travellers. They were that for all their friends, but for me, a special bond – for 20 years, Sarah was my Yiddish translator. Without her, my book on my great-grandfather would not exist. And for her, I think my work was a connection to her childhood and its haimish language. We even met several times in New York, to go together to the YIVO to hunt down material – and on one unforgettable occasion, Ben, the international engineering tycoon, came with us and was relegated to xerox duty. Sarah died on my birthday, August 1st, in 2009; I miss her and her unsentimentally affectionate friendship deeply.

And then yesterday, Ramon called to tell me of Ben’s death in Miami. What isn’t mentioned in the obit is what Ben suffered when Sarah died – not only the loss of his dearest friend since early childhood, his life partner in every sense of the word – Sarah while raising their sons was also an integral part of Ben’s business from the start – but also, at the same time, the loss of his right arm to cancer. Suddenly this powerfully independent man was not only alone for the first time in his life but physically incapacitated. He sank, briefly. And then he rose, and fought, and lived a vibrant life, travelling, entertaining, visiting friends and family, until only a few weeks before his death.

Ben saw through people in an instant; it could be frightening. One of the things I will never forget is him talking about his dealings with two premiers, Bob Rae and Mike Harris, on various highway projects. You’d expect him as a very wealthy businessman to respect Harris and despise Rae; in fact, it was the reverse. He had enormous respect for Bob Rae and none at all for Harris.

My condolences to his children and grandchildren, and my thanks to them for sharing these wonderful human beings with the world and with me.

Announcing the passing in Miami, Florida on December 23, 2013 of Benjamin Torchinsky, born on September 24, 1926 in Calgary, Alberta the son of Max and Rose Torchinsky. He leaves behind his sister Ethel Wiss; two sons, Alan and Raymon; two daughters-in-law, Ruth and Christine; and four grandchildren, Miriam, Joseph, Abraham and Sasha. Ben was predeceased in 2009 by his beloved wife and most trusted advisor, Sarah (Pearlman) Torchinsky.

Ben’s affinity for engineering began in his youth when he took advantage of the many opportunities offered by his father’s used parts business for creative improvisation, like building a motorized bicycle from a washing machine engine. His career in civil engineering began with a stint as a professor at the University of Saskatchewan, where he was privileged to teach many returning veterans the principles of civil engineering and particularly the emerging field of soil mechanics, which was Ben’s passion. Teaching gave way to Ben’s desire to put geotechnical theories into practice. He began with Torchinsky Consulting, which soon morphed into Western Caissons, specializing in state of the art geotechnical work in heavy foundations. As the business grew across the country, Ben’s belief in good people and good ideas and the need to take a risk on both came to the fore. He moved his thriving engineering company into new and diversified fields, under the banner of Agra Industries, and became a pioneer in vegetable oil processing, cable TV, medical diagnostics and recycling. “I came from Western Canada”, Ben said,” I believed in being diversified. I’ve grown up in a country where the main economic strength depended entirely on farming, and if there was a good crop year it was good for everybody, and if there was a poor crop year it was bad for everybody.” 

The engineering core of the business continued to be Ben’s passion and it grew to encompass many major projects worldwide. Agra contributed to the design and construction of rapid transit systems in Vancouver and Washington, DC; the Three Gorges dam in China; the Hibernia, Sable Island and Terra Nova oil and gas projects off Canada’s East Coast; the Alliance gas pipeline in Western Canada and the U.S. Midwest; Highway 407 in Ontario; the Diavik diamond mine in the Northwest Territories and the building of nuclear reactors for South Korea. By the mid 1990’s Agra’s reach had expanded to employ 6,500 people in 24 countries. Ben became personally involved in Agra’s development of a major hotel and real estate project in the Cayman Islands, and he and Sarah decided to make it their home.

With the merger of Agra and UK Based AMEC in 2000 Ben retired from one business only to keep on pursuing many more as a mentor or active partner. He travelled frequently to the UK to promote Seacore, a marine construction company involved in building offshore wind farms in Europe. As a resident of Grand Cayman, he became the trusted partner to many local entrepreneurs. 

Ben and Sarah loved art and music. They helped to support many artists and music societies, beginning in Saskatoon when Ben was an engineering professor and continuing in the other cities his business took them. 

Ben’s awards for his engineering accomplishments included the 1997 Sir John Kennedy Medal from the Engineering Institute of Canada, the 2001 Beaubien Award presented by the Association of Consulting Engineers of Canada and an Honorary Doctorate in 2003 from his alma mater, the University of Alberta. Ben’s most treasured recognition came from the many young engineers and entrepreneurs that he mentored throughout his life. If there is a fitting epitaph, it is in Ben’s own words: “I really got a kick out of helping someone with an idea, who could make it into something worthwhile. If it worked, the whole thing was a lot of fun and very satisfying. And that works out to a good life.”

Ben will be buried beside Sarah in the West Bay Cemetery, Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman. 

Published in The Saskatoon StarPhoenix on Dec. 28, 2013.



2 Responses to “RIP Ben Torchinsky”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I'm so sorry, Bethes. It is hard hard hard to lose friends.

  2. beth says:

    It sure is, Lani. But it is also a most wonderful thing to have good friends from way back. I love you.

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About Beth

I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

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