SAINT JOHN, N.B. - Tycoon John E. (Jack) Irving, regarded as the quiet one of the three Irving brothers who helped expand their family's businesses from humble beginnings in New Brunswick to a global empire, has died. He was 78.

Irving, the youngest son of Irving Oil founder K.C. Irving and one of Canada's wealthiest men, died Wednesday in his hometown of Saint John following a brief undisclosed illness.

"Today is a very sad day for me as we mourn the passing of my brother Jack," James K. Irving said in an email. "Jack was a great brother and friend. We enjoyed many happy years growing up together — at home and in the business. He will be greatly missed."

Born on Jan. 1, 1932, Irving learned about business at an early age. When he was eight, he joined his brothers to form the Jim, Art and Jack Farm, raising chickens in their backyard and selling eggs.

They began with a dozen chickens. Six years later, they had more than 1,500.

He attended Rothesay Collegiate, a private boys' school near Saint John, where he was nicknamed "Gassy." He played guard for the basketball team, captained the rugby team and was a chess champion. According to the school yearbook, his destiny was listed as "$25 million."

His father raised him and his two brothers to be teetotallers and all three underwent a "stern and unrelenting apprenticeship" in different branches of the family businesses, according to a 1959 article in the Atlantic Advocate.

In 1952, at his father's request, he joined his family's businesses where he worked alongside his brother Arthur at Irving Oil. He began managing construction and engineering projects, including retail outlets, bulk plants, and other major infrastructure.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, about 100 service stations branding the now-famous Irving name were built each year. Working with his brothers, Jack helped build upon the legacy of their father to expand and develop the Irving Group of companies into a worldwide corporation.

"He was the builder," said Pat Darrah, a close friend of more than 50 years and executive director of the Saint John Construction Association. "Every service station, every bulk plant, and every warehouse of Irving Oil you see in the four Atlantic provinces and Quebec, that was done under his tutelage."

He was also a director of all of Irving's varied businesses, which include lumber and oil, and became a member of the Order of Canada for his lengthy list of achievements.

He was one of the richest men in the country. The accumulated wealth of the three Irving brothers was pegged at $7.3 billion, according to a Canadian Business magazine ranking in 2009.

Outside of business, he established a reputation as a philanthropist who supported education, the arts and the restoration of heritage properties.

"His transportation and construction companies employed thousands of New Brunswickers, and while he may have been the quietest of the three Irving brothers, he was a figure on the international stage that will be fondly remembered here in New Brunswick," Premier Shawn Graham said in an interview, calling him a "gentle giant" of business.

Keith Ashfield, the federal cabinet minister for New Brunswick, extended his condolences and reflected on the impact Irving had on his province.

"Jack, along with his father and brothers, grew the Irving Group of companies into an engine of economic development for New Brunswick," Ashfield said in a statement. "As head of the Irving construction, steel, and engineering companies, Jack’s vision is imprinted throughout the infrastructure of New Brunswick and indeed throughout Atlantic Canada."

Even among the notoriously low-profile Irvings, Jack was considered an intensely private man.

In the spring of 1982, he was abducted at gunpoint by Stephen Childs, a security guard who demanded a $600,000 ransom so he could develop a health spa. He was held hostage for 10 hours before police freed him. Childs was sentenced to 25 years in prison for the kidnapping and other crimes.

Former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna said he was proud to have called Irving a friend, and saddened by his death.

"He was unfailingly courteous," McKenna said in an interview. "He'll be remembered as a great human being who achieved great things in the world of business, but never forgot his family, his community and humanitarian causes that were important to him.

Throughout his life, Irving's heart remained in the port city of Saint John, McKenna added.

"A lot of people when they achieve success, they move on and find more exotic places to live or jet-set around the world," McKenna said.

"Jack Irving didn't do that. His home was in Saint John. That's where his roots were, that's where his friends were, his family, and that's where he devoted his life."

Irving was also an avid outdoorsman who canoed and kayaked, hunted and fished.

"He liked nothing better than to walk through the forest of New Brunswick looking at the trees, looking at how things were growing, being on the rivers and being around the ocean. He had a very respectful relationship with the environment he lived in," McKenna said.

Irving is survived by his wife Suzanne, three children, John, Colin and Anne, and six grandchildren.

A funeral service will be held Saturday at Trinity Anglican Church in Saint John. A private family interment is to take place at a later time.

— By Kevin Bissett in Fredericton.

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