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A Well Rounded Businessman


Bert Riggs,

(an archivist with the Centre for Newfoundland Studies at Memorial University),
whose column, A Backward Glance
appears in the Telegram each Tuesday

Transcribed From the Telegram

By: Barbara McGrath



His name was a household word in Newfoundland during the middle decades of the 20th century, yet today it is mainly members of older generations who recognize the name F.M. O'Leary, or are aware of the contributions he made to many facets of Newfoundland life.

Francis Martin O'Leary was born in St. John's on Oct. 10, 1894, the son of Capt. Francis O'Leary and Margaret Lambert. Young Frank spent some time at sea with his father, but after completing his education at St. Patrick's Hall school, St. John's, he entered the world of business as a commercial traveller with T. H. Eastbrook & Co. He spent nine years travelling around Newfoundland, meeting many people, some of whom would remain lifelong friends.

Like many young men his age, he enlisted in the Newfoundland Regiment, spending 1917 and 1918 on the battlefields of Belgium and France. After demobilization, he returned to St. John's, where, in 1922, he established F. M. O'Leary Ltd., a commission agency. His business acumen served him well and the success of that enterprise led to the establishment of others, including Building Supplies Ltd. and Hub Sales Co. Ltd.

In 1937 Joseph R. Smallwood convinced William F. Galgay, the manager of VONF, the government-owned radio station, to air a new program he had created. Entitled The Barrelman, and dedicated to making Newfoundland better known to Newfoundlanders, it aired for 15 minutes on each of six nights beginning the week of Oct. 18. After the first week, Smallwood went to see O'Leary to ask him to sponsor the program. O'Leary had heard the first week's programs and was impressed. He agreed to pay a sponsorship fee to VONF and to pay Smallwood a salary of $30 per week. The program lasted for 18 years, with Smallwood as host until 1943, and Michael Harrington as host from 1943 to 1955.

In 1938, the program spawned a newspaper, also called The Barrelman. It was a 16-page tabloid-size monthly containing information similar to the type presented on the radio. The newspaper lasted until 1954, but in 1943 its name was changed to The Newfoundlander. The Barrelman became a vehicle for O'Leary to launch several projects that were to enhance the social, cultural and economic life of Newfoundland. With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, he used the radio program and the newspaper to launch two ideas that were to contribute greatly to the Newfoundland war effort.

The first was a call to all permanently employed residents of Newfoundland to donate one per cent of their yearly earnings to the Newfoundland Patriotic Association (NPA), a volunteer-based organization O'Leary had helped to re-constitute to look after the needs of Newfoundlanders fighting in the war. This voluntary appeal brought tens of thousands of dollars to the NPA.

The second scheme was the Fish-a-Man campaign. Each fisherman was asked to contribute one fish each season, the proceeds from the sale of which would go to the NPA. The fish were sent to O'Leary's St. John's premises and he arranged for their sale at no charge to the NPA. The response from Newfoundland fishermen was such that over $65,000 was raised. Another of his war-time initiatives was the establishment of the Allied Merchant Seamen's Club, which provided shore-leave comforts for the men of the Merchant Marine. He served as first chairman of the club and was a main contributor to its successful operation.

O'Leary was committed to promoting the cultural life of Newfoundland. At the suggestion of Barrelman host Michael Harrington, in 1944, O'Leary began sponsorship of the O'Leary Poetry Contest. Newfoundlanders were invited to submit original poems, which would be adjudicated for prizes and publication. The contest ran yearly until 1955, during which hundreds of writers submitted their work.

In 1947, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of F.M. O'Leary Ltd., the founder offered $1,000 in prizes for an essay contest on the subject, The Responsibility of Citizenship. This contest may well have been influenced by the political climate, as the debate of Newfoundland's political future was well under way.

Even though his old friend Joe Smallwood was the prime mover in the campaign to have Newfoundland become part of Canada, O'Leary was a passionate supporter of a return to Responsible Government. He became president of the Responsible Government League and fought valiantly during the referenda campaigns to convince Newfoundlanders to support his cause. A mark of his character was amply demonstrated after the referenda, when he encouraged all Newfoundlanders to accept the decision of the electorate and become good Canadians. He even considered entering Smallwood's first Cabinet in 1949.

O'Leary demonstrated his community spirit through his involvement with the St. John's Rotary Club, the Knights of Columbus, the Benevolent Irish Society and the Board of Trade.

He was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1944 for his work with the NPA during the Second World War, and he was made a Knight of the Order of St. Gregory by Pope Pius XII in 1955.

Frank O'Leary married Mollie Duchemin in 1925 and they were the parents of two sons. He died in St. John's Sept. 1, 1963.

Bert Riggs is an archivist with the Centre for Newfoundland Studies at Memorial University. ...



This page transcribed by Barbara McGrath (October 2000)
REVISED: 25 May 2002 (Terry Piercey)

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