Watching the Calgary Stampede chuckwagon races last week reminded me of Roger Jarvis, past president of “The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth.”
I was thirty-one years old, had never made a travel reservation and been outside the country by air only once when Roger hired me to work for him at Jarvis Travel. Besides being a great boss, always positive, full of fun and open to new ideas, he is one of the kindest people I’ve ever met.
A day after watching those thoroughbreds, Mike sent us a note: “This was in the Herald last week. I thought you probably knew but decided to send it just in case. https://calgaryherald.remembering.ca/obituary/charles-jarvis-1085691792.
Roger used to joke about starting Jarvis Travel on April Fool’s Day. (His initial dream to be a pilot with Wardair was thwarted when a medical test showed he had a mild congenital heart situation.) The company was ten years old when I started in 1981 and had recently joined Woodside, an affiliation of international business-travel agencies. Roger said he’d like me to learn the ropes, start a quarterly newsletter to clients and help him market the company against the big players, like American Express and Marlin Travel.
Roger was a joker, but he was no fool.
His was the first travel agency in Calgary to install a computer for ticketing instead of relying on the airlines. (Yes Virginia, that’s how it was in prehistoric times.) He hired smart agents like Steve Chu, the genius who could calculate complicated international business fares from YYC to DEL.
Roger believed in the personal touch.
He spent more two-thirds of his day calling on clients (returning with a box of doughnuts for the staff when clients praised their work, which was often), drumming up business, lunching with one or the other or a supplier. Soon he had me doing the same. Embarrassing myself when a company I cold-called said, “We already deal with Jarvis Travel,” Roger and I went from a file-card index of our clients by name to a computerized list we could also sort by address!
Early on, he hired a vivacious woman named Pauline to deliver tickets, knowing she’d be chummy with clients and relay any misgivings they had about our service. When Pauline was away on summer vacation, he hired from within, the kids of staff, including our daughter Lynn.
The backers of Jarvis Travel had been amply compensated for their initial investment and Roger was keen to go it on his own. With or without them, he knew he needed a clear vision, a long-range business strategy that addressed clients’ needs, staff profit-sharing and enhanced compensation from the airlines. He turned to Baker-Lovick, who put their VP Ruth Ann (who became one of my best friends) on the job.
Of all the many clients I helped develop long-range plans and key messages, Roger was by far and away the most enthusiastic and involved—both in developing the plan to spread his wings and then making sure the company followed it. Six months after we developed the plan, he decided we should do a review to make sure the company was on target. It was! “No sense doing all this work without making sure we’re doing what we said we wanted to do,” he said. We did a second follow-up a year later at his ‘cabin’ at Canmore. And of course, several staff were involved as they had been throughout. It was a great celebration (read party)! I thought the world of him.
He closed both money-losing holiday-travel offices but kept the staff. Introduced profit-sharing for all employees—which he handed out personally in envelopes of CASH. And instead of just focusing on cutting costs to increase profits, we negotiated significant over-rides from the airlines.
Magellan and Roger’s wife Marie usually accompanied us to international Woodside meetings, held annually, like the one in Dublin during the October 1987 stock-market crash.
Magellan recalls our post-meeting vacation with them:
Roger was a great driver who loved Ireland’s stone-walled narrow roads. He didn’t take his golf game too seriously, he was just out there for the moment, even at Ballybunion. I remember drinking a lot of Guinness after our game there and Roger saying to me, “You’re only a pint short of a gallon.”
One of our most memorable times together was in Rome, beginning with flying upstairs, above the nose of the plane, on Air Italia.
After the long, expensive cab ride from the airport to our hotel, Marie and I both reached for the burgundy suitcase, not realizing we owned the exact same luggage—and someone’s was still at the airport!
Much as he loved flying, Roger didn’t really enjoy travelling. He didn’t drink much, and he preferred plain food. But he let me choose the restaurants when the four of us holidayed together and in Rome, I picked Taverna del Ghetto—where Jewish-Roman cuisine is still being served.
Concern first appeared on Roger’s face when our cab neared the shabby and forlorn neighbourhood of Portico d’Ottavia. On a Saturday night at 7 pm, we were the only diners. The menu was in Italian and not easy to comprehend. What was Carciofi? Animelle? Tacchino? Our waitress, about eight months pregnant, didn’t speak English. Nor did her husband, the chef. I can still visualize her “charading” the menu, rubbing her belly to indicate animelle, what Magellan correctly guessed as sweetbreads, flapping her elbows, shaking her head no when we guessed “chicken,” then enlarging her wingspread so we figured tacchino must be turkey, all of us, by then, laughing so hard, Roger’s napkin was wet from wiping his eyes.
Roger pulled many a practical joke. Like leaving a message with the secretary of Air Canada’s local manager. “Just tell Jack that Zellers called, and his suit is ready for pick up.” Or slipping cutlery into the suit pocket of an unsuspecting dinner companion, everyone’s eyes turned toward the jangling sound when he got up, Roger beckoning the waiter to catch the “thief.”
One Saturday before April Fool’s Day Roger stuffed up some of his clothes (he was a very natty dresser) to create a dummy that he locked into a cubicle in the women’s washroom at the agency. When Helen came into work on Sunday and discovered a “man” in the women’s loo, she called the police. Roger was so sorry he bought her flowers.
He was a humble and unpretentious man, kind to everyone he met: executives and secretaries, coat girls and homeless men. On more than one occasion, he lent staff money, to help with a downpayment for a house, finance the purchase of a car, even a wedding I think…
In 1988, Magellan was transferred to Vancouver, and I got a job with another great boss (Willard Holmes at the Vancouver Art Gallery). Cheeky I know, but I asked Roger if he’d consider a “leaving bonus.” He wrote me a cheque for $10K!
Twice, in 1989 and 1995, Jarvis Travel was named “one of the 50 best managed companies in Canada.” Twice, Roger personally received the Capital Pinnacle award for Calgary’s Entrepreneur of the year.
In 1998 he received an offer too good to refuse and sold the company. Roger carried on with his generous volunteer commitments to Rotary (40 years—watch the Vimeo of him telling his story and you’ll get a real sense of the man), the Calgary Stampede (he was its president in 2001) and the Calgary Airport Authority, among others.
We saw Roger while in Canmore to celebrate my 60th birthday. One Saturday morning he called to see if he could come over to say hello. My family was there and we were about to go hiking. “I’ll be at the trailhead,” he said. “Just for a few minutes. I’d like to meet your mother.” (He adored his parents and totally charmed my mom.) Later that September was the last time we saw Roger. He had had a stroke a few years before and over dinner, credited his beloved Marie with saving his life. He was in good shape and thoroughly accepted no longer being able to drive at night and having to sell his share of the airplane he could no longer fly.
How like Roger to leave these parting words for his obituary. “Thank you! Thank you! For being a part of my life.”
Roger tells his life-story on Rotary Vimeo