Ontario family recalled for philanthropy, business success after crash deaths

Joe Robertson helped create a dental supply firm and sold it for millions before he turned 40, and then with his wife Anita became a major philanthropist in southern Ontario.

The couple, both 58, and their 24-year-old daughter Laura Robertson were killed in a Maine plane crash Monday, as they flew to P.E.I. for a vacation.

"He was unbelievable. He was a machine. You couldn't find a better business partner. He's brilliant and caring and thoughtful and fair. The best Bay Street lawyers, he would correct their work," said Carman Adair, his business partner.

Each time he views a news photo of the crumpled fuselage, Adair says he can't believe his meticulous and caring business partner was piloting the aircraft which crashed into a field in northern Maine.

The twin-engine plane plunged to the ground near the Greenville municipal airport in the state's interior during an attempted landing on Monday morning.

"I keep looking at the plane wreckage and thinking that cannot be Joe," Adair said in a telephone interview from Langley, B.C.

"He told me when he took lessons on that plane from a master trainer, he did 168 takeoffs and landing in a two-week period."

The businessman is struggling to understand what might have gone wrong for the brilliant Harvard MBA graduate.

The business partners took Arcona Health Inc. from inception into a firm with $65 million in annual sales and over 900 staff before it was sold in 1998, he said.

They'd recently finalized an agreement to resume their partnership on a fresh venture, hoping to repeat their success with a new firm, Amax Health Inc.

The cause of the crash remains unknown, though the National Transportation Safety Agency has launched a probe of the crash of the twin-engine Piper PA-60 Aerostar aircraft.

The flight had started from Pembroke, near the family's Golden Lake, Ont., cottage, and was bound for Charlottetown, with plans to carry on after a few days to Newfoundland and Labrador.

Terry Williams, a spokesman for the NTSB, says Robertson called in a loss of engine power to the Boston air traffic control on Monday morning.

Witnesses watched as the aircraft passed by the municipal airport, banked and plunged to the ground as an emergency landing was attempted.

As news spread through the victims' hometown, local community leaders expressed their sadness at the news.

Brian McMullan, a former mayor of St. Catharines, said in the years that followed Robertson's retirement from the dental supply business, the couple became key philanthropists in the Niagara area.

He said in an interview that the Niagara-on-the-Lake residents were "genuine, decent people," whose early donation to the St. Catharines performing arts centre was a bold move that helped revitalize the city's centre.

They were also strong supporters of Brock University, the United Way, and Niagara Health, he said.

One of their donations funds a bursary to support hospital staff taking classes at the St. Catharines campus.

The university said Robertson spent a decade on the school's board, including two years as chair, from 2012-14. He had also chaired the Council of Chairs of Ontario Universities, it said.

Anita Robertson was also an active volunteer for Brock and charities in the area.

Laura Robertson, who had recently been hired to work at the recreation and athletics department at Brock University, was also a volunteer firefighter in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Fire chief Rob Grimwood said in a statement that Robertson joined the department in January and had recently completed the recruit training program.

"She had demonstrated a strong commitment to serving her community as a volunteer firefighter and expressed on many occasions how much she enjoyed being a firefighter and being part of our team," said Grimwood.

The flags at the Niagara-on-the-Lake town hall were to fly at half-mast on Wednesday to honour Robertson.

The Robertsons are survived by two adult sons.

"They will be missed," said McMullan.