Anyone who has ever Hula Hooped, guided a Slinky down the stairs, thrown a frisbee, cuddled a Care Bear, participated in a Star Wars character fight, made a snack in an Easy-Bake Oven or challenged an opponent on an Atari video game system has been touched by Toronto’s family Irwin.
In 1926, Samuel Irwin founded a small toy and souvenir business out of his home. But in 1948, Irwin fought Specialties, and two of Irwin’s sons, Arnold and MacDonald, joined their father. Under the brothers’ leadership, Toronto-based Irwin Toy Ltd. Canada’s largest developer, manufacturer, marketer and distributor of toys.
“The Irwin brothers were the pioneers of the industry who pioneered that would change the business forever,” said John Boynton, Arnold’s nephew and vice president of NordStar, which owns the Toronto Star.
Arnold Beatty Irwin was born in Toronto in 1926 to Samuel and Beatrice Irwin and was the older brother of MacDonald (Mac), Bryan and Marilyn. He attended Forest Hill Collegiate and the University of Toronto, where he studied actuarial sciences and played hockey. His daughter, Marylynn Boyle, says he was known for his “sharp elbows”.
He left university after his first year to join the Army, where he served in Canada during the final year of World War II. After the war, when his father got Arnold and Mac to run the family business, the brothers traveled the world to buy products for the Canadian market.
“It was shortly after an employee kept mentioning to Arnold that he should meet this beautiful woman he knew,” Boyle says. “He would mention this several times until Arnold said, ‘Well, stop talking about it, and let’s meet her.’ ‘Arnold ended up marrying the woman, Lynn Lonergan, in 1950. They had four children – Scott (1951), Craig (1953), Grant (1955) and Marylynn (1959) – whom they took on trips to, among others, Hong King, Australia, Italy, France and Africa.
Under Arnold and Mac’s leadership, Irwin Toy Ltd. began to add more toys for its series of souvenirs during the 1950s. In the 1960s – amplified by the post-war baby boom – their toy sales surpassed souvenirs. In an expansion, the company went public in 1969. When Samuel died in the early 1970s, Arnold – as president and later chairman of the board – and Mac left at the helm, Irwin Toy Ltd. dominated the Canadian toy industry. Later, the company distributed sports equipment brands Rawlings and Cooper and developed Pound Puppies and Jenga, which both became megahits in the 80s.
“Arnold always thought outside the box,” his brother Bryan recalls. Irwin Toy Ltd. was the first Canadian toy company to advertise on television, even before Canada had its own network. In the 50s, it placed child-oriented ads on U.S. border stations that reached into Canadian markets and produced a catalog for consumers — unusual at the time.
“He was a master of dealmaking,” Bryan recalls. “He could make a deal with the handshake or on a napkin.” Arnold challenged his staff, but was always kind and fair. “You knew when you met Arnold that you had to have your facts in order,” Bryan says. “He had a famous line: ‘That’s a very good answer, but it does not answer the question I asked.’
“He walked through the factory almost every day to talk to workers on the factory line,” Bryan adds, “stopping to hear about any problems they may have.”
Together with Mac, Arnold spearheaded the industry’s efforts to develop an acceptable broadcast code for children’s advertising that allowed only four minutes of advertising per day. Half an hour of children’s programming, instead of the usual six allowed on other shows.
Just as he was a wise businessman, Arnold was a loving family man. Many fun summers were spent at Arnold’s cottage on Big Whitefish Lake near Parry Sound. He also hosts family reunions at his property near Meaford, where Boyle says: “Everyone met and had fun playing tennis, skiing, hiking, go-karting and more.”
Arnold never did anything halfway, especially when it came to helping others. As a founding member of the Craigleith Ski Club and the longest-serving member of the Toronto Kiwanis Club, he always gave back to the community. “They helped some people who needed help,” Boyle says of his parents, “but focused much of their efforts on influential medical research that could impact patients with serious illnesses.”
With a passion for scientific innovation, Arnold engaged with physicians to ensure that the support he provided could be exploited through research. team. After a granddaughter was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis 30 years ago, Arnold and Lynn funded projects primarily through SickKids Hospital and the Canadian Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, support that continues to this day. They also established the Lynn & Arnold Irwin Advanced Perioperative Imaging Lab at the Peter Munk Cardiac Center and the Arnold B. Irwin Fund at the University Health Network Foundation, which helped advance dementia, neurodegenerative diseases, cardiology, heart failure, anaesthesiology and urology.
“He will be remembered by many people for many good things,” says Boyle, “but for the most part he will be remembered for his charity.”