When Joseph Zatzman, C. M., D. C. L., passed away peacefully at 95 years of age in December of 2007, he was remembered as a "person of timeless vision." A brilliant businessman, he also served two terms as the first and only Jewish mayor of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. (see Image 1 above)
Joe Zatzman was born in Saint John, New Brunswick in 1912 to Russian immigrant parents Louis and Ida (Fellhandler). His father made his living at a scrap metal company for a few years but subsequently entered the fish export trade with his brother Jake and another man. In 1918, the business collapsed and they went broke. Louis moved his wife and four children - Joe, Lillian, Betty and Myer - to Yarmouth where he went into the fish and kosher meat businesses. Six years later, the family moved to Halifax. As a teenager, Joe and three of his friends started a Young Judaea chapter in the city. He attended the Halifax Academy, but because of his family’s dire financial situation, he often stayed home from school to run their kosher butcher shop.
After graduation, Joe took three years of Commerce at Dalhousie University. At 22 years of age, he moved across the harbour to live in Dartmouth and decided to enter the retail grocery business. His store, located at the corner of Portland Street and Victoria Road called the Community Groceteria, was a staple of the community for many years. In 1934, he married Leah Flam from Newcastle, New Brunswick. They had two children - a son, Michael and a daughter, Karla. According to his son, Joe was the kind of person who wanted to see everyone do well. When the property of a competitor directly across the street was destroyed by fire, Joe opened up his store to him, telling the man to keep his employees and have his customers call in their delivery orders - to essentially operate out of the groceteria until he was able to get back on his feet again.
During the 1940s Joe sold his enterprise to the Sobeys chain and became a real estate developer, establishing what is presently Maplehurst Properties Ltd.. Within ten years, his company owned more than 200 apartment buildings and became one of the largest property management companies in Nova Scotia. Two of the buildings he built and managed were the Royal Bank in Dartmouth and the Dartmouth Professional Centre. He was president of the Dartmouth Chamber of Commerce when he successfully ran for alderman of his district and served four terms. Joe won the first of his two three-year terms as mayor of the city in 1963. His most notable legacy in this position was his enormous impact on the creation of Burnside Industrial Park. (see Image 2 above)
Another Dartmouth mayor, Gloria McClusky, later pointed out that Joe realized development was being curtailed by the lack of serviced land. As a result, business which should have gone to Dartmouth ended up across the harbour in Halifax. Unfortunately, Council was not in total favour of developing its own land. So, Joe reportedly laid it all on the line stating in no uncertain terms, "If you don't want to develop it, I'll do it with my own money and make the profits." Council quickly jumped on board and approved the proposed development. The industrial park initiative came to fruition in the 1960s. Its present 2000 businesses and 30,000 employees represent fifty percent of the commercial space available in Atlantic Canada and is the largest industrial park north of Boston and east of Montreal.
Following his stint in politics, Joe headed up the Nova Scotia Resources Development Board which he chaired under both Liberal and Tory administrations. Some of his community involvements and chairmanships included the Dartmouth and Atlantic Chambers of Commerce, the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society, the United Jewish Appeal, and the Atlantic Jewish Council. He served as chairperson of the Nova Scotia Resources Board, the Venture Capital Board and other development institutions.
While on the Royal Trust Advisory Board in 1979, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Civil Laws from St. Mary’s University. He later received the 125th Anniversary of the Confederation of Canada Medal, and in 1997, was inducted into the Order of Canada. A street in the Burnside Industrial Park bears his name and the Dartmouth Sportsplex was renamed the Zatzman Sportsplex in his honour.
Joe Zatzman and his family were longtime members the Beth Israel Synagogue but eventually, he and his family left to join the Shaar Shalom congregation. His sister, Lill Aronson, was one of my mother’s card playing buddies for at least a half-century. It just so happened that I always knew her brother as Joe. During the summer of 2006, I remember taking my mother to the Public Gardens where we would occasionally run into Joe and his caregiver. Even at 94, he was sharp as a tack - relaxed, lucid, funny, and witty. It was a such a pleasure having a conversation with him.
Joe’s foresight, tenacity and business acumen served to help rejuvenate the region’s economy and secure a broader tax-base through development. It is assured Joseph Zatzman’s legacy will remain intact and that he will continue to be remembered as a personable yet relentless driving force for the community of Dartmouth for which he worked so hard to develop into an economic success.
Sources: Lindsay Jones (The Weekly News); Joseph Zatzman obituary by Joel Jacobson; Simcha 100, Baron de Hirsch Congregation, Over 100 years of Jewish Life in Halifax (Frank Medjuck, Ed.); Article by correspondent, Helen Gibson, The Sprague Project.