In his own words, Ted Rogers was sickly as a child. At his birth, his mother was told he might not survive more than a few days. He suffered from celiac disease, which meant he could not digest gluten. He had limited vision in his right eye—only five to 10 per cent. Doctors were relieved when he made it to his fifth birthday, but for much of his life, health problems plagued him. Yet, in spite of the ongoing concerns or perhaps, in part, because of them, Rogers was extraordinarily driven. “He knew he had limitations,” says Bernie Gosevitz, Rogers’ long-time personal doctor, close friend and confidant. “But he never let them stop him.” Rather than resign himself to a catalogue of ailments—after the childhood troubles, there was a weak heart, glaucoma, skin cancer—Rogers instead built Rogers Communications, the country’s biggest multimedia conglomerate. More importantly, he fulfilled a goal set at a very young age to restore the family’s fortune and reputation in honour of his father, a legend in his own right. In doing so, Rogers created a legacy that his children and grandchildren can be proud of. All this, despite being ill much of the time. As a child, Rogers was fed sugar pills—“which I detested,” he wrote in his autobiography, Relentless—in an effort to strengthen and to put on some weight. The hated pills weren’t terribly successful. He was painfully thin, prompting fellow students at Upper Canada College, where he boarded from the age of seven to 17, to nickname him “Bones.” In his book, Rogers recalls: “I was a skinny little fellow, but I was a fighter.”
He was a fighter, all right, one with an early and profound understanding of mortality. Ted Rogers’ father, Edward Rogers, Sr., in––vented the batteryless radio, revolutionized the business and ushered in a new era of radios in every kitchen. But one night after a dinner party in his home, at the age of 38, Rogers, Sr., suffered a massive aneurysm. He died two days later. Young Ted was three weeks shy of his sixth birthday. “As a youngster, you don’t truly realize the impact when a parent dies young, but you do later—it defines the rest of your life,” Rogers wrote in Relentless. It drove the younger Rogers’ professional ambition, and it instilled his deep awareness that good health is a gift and that life is short. “I have thought about death throughout all stages of my life,” Rogers penned. “We should never take our health for granted. It is so precious.”
Close friends were privy to the impact of his father’s passing. “He always had in the back of his mind that his dad died at 38,” says Gosevitz. “This was always there. Each time he did a new deal, or achieved another goal, he would talk about it in light of making his family proud.” Having experienced firsthand how a premature death can affect a family, Rogers was determined to protect his legacy. In 1967, very soon after the arrival of his first child, Lisa, and soon after winning his first cable TV licences, Rogers set up two trusts that would keep control of the company with his family if he died. The structures have changed over the years, but the principle that his family maintains control of the enterprise has endured.
Rogers did everything he could to take care of himself, says Gosevitz. He ate well, didn’t drink much, and exercised regularly. When needed, he sought medical attention, rather than ignore problems. “Ted’s actions prolonged his life considerably,” he says. His health problems, the most serious of which was a weak heart, began in earnest in the mid-1980s. At 52, in 1985, he had a silent heart attack, one he only learned about well after the fact. In 1988, he had surgery to repair an abdominal aortic aneurysm, a condition that may well have been the cause of his father’s death. In 1992, he had quadruple bypass surgery. Seven years later, in 1999, the abdominal aortic aneurysm needed to be repaired once again. In addition, he had recurring basal cell carcinoma which, while not life-threatening, required operations. He had a pacemaker to regulate his heartbeat, and had external defibrillators on hand at the office, at his home and in his car.
Rogers rarely complained, remembers Phil Lind, vice-chairman of Rogers Communications and a long-time close friend. “Occasionally he’d talk about his eyes, or his heart, but it wasn’t a central theme for him at all,” says Lind. “He did his best,” adds Gosevitz. “For the last 23 years, he battled a series of cardiovascular events, many of which were life-threatening. He tackled each of his problems head on. He was never fearful. He was always brave. He always looked to the future.”
In the end, on Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2008, at the age of 75, it was his heart that gave out. Ted Rogers died at home, surrounded by family and his doctor. He had been through a great deal, and yet there was never a whiff of woe-is-me. “What are you going to do?” Rogers wrote in Relentless. “Mope around the house? Not a chance.”