Mr. Les Birmingham
Mr. Les Birmingham
Mr. Les Birmingham
Mr. Les Birmingham
Mr. Les Birmingham

Obituary of Mr. Les Birmingham

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It is with much sadness, yet many fond memories, that we share the loss of William Leslie (“Les”) Birmingham on Easter Sunday, April 4, 2021, at the age of 92 years.


Les was born on March 8, 1929, in the seaside town of Tramore, Ireland. He lived in Carrick-on-Suir, Co. Tipperary, before emigrating with his mom, to join his dad in Toronto, just before his 3rd birthday. His sister Bette was born later the same year. He remained a Torontonian for the rest of his years, watching the city evolve and grow around him.


As a child, Les had a large paper route in the heart of the city, as well as a job at a hardware store that enabled him to repair the windows he occasionally broke tossing a paper. He also made deliveries for Wm. J. Blood’s Butcher and Grocery. Life in Toronto was simpler then. But then, as now, family was at the core. Summer days were often spent on Toronto Island with his mom and Bette, picnicking on cucumber sandwiches, joined by his father after work. They also enjoyed lake cruising on the SS Cayuga.


At St. Thomas’s Anglican Church, he was head choirboy, later an acolyte, then President of the Young People’s Association. As a Boy Scout, he became a King’s Scout, the top grade and honour in scouting. He then went on to be a Sea Cadet where he learned to sail in a lifeboat, sparking a love of sailing that would see him become a member at QCYC. He enjoyed many adventures at Camp Artaban, Ancaster, and later helped found Camp Artaban, Bolton. Begun by “Padre Holmes” who Les greatly admired, the ethos of Camp Artaban was that one’s duty was living for others, not one’s self.


Les attended Toronto elementary schools, Harbord Collegiate Institute, Toronto Normal School, the University of Western Ontario, and the University of Toronto. His own experiences shaped his career as an innovator in education, as a teacher and principal, in inner-city Toronto. He recognized each student as unique, worked hard to maximize the benefit of mainstream school, and also developed alternative programs, open-concept schools, and other options to allow every child an opportunity for an education that fit their mode of learning. One of the programs he co-founded was “SEED” (Summer of Experience, Exploration, and Development), which grew into a much-needed and successful education program. In 2018, SEED celebrated its 50th anniversary and its alumni of very successful “seedlings” include scientists, educators, entrepreneurs, academics, authors, artists, musicians and activists. SEED is still one of several alternative schools in Toronto today.


Les began his teaching career at the Island Public School, in 1949. At that time there were so many children living on Toronto Island that his “classroom” lined both sides of a hallway. His love for the island community and its families was strong. His own family joined that community in the 1950’s, and later he played a major role in the struggle to save the island homes. One of his favourite activities was standing in front of his island house, equally greeting old friends and making new ones who were enjoying their day on the island, as he had done as a young boy. He was also able to merge his love for the island and desire to enhance the lives of inner-city children by establishing the Church Street Day Care Summer Camp, which, of course, spent each day on the island.


In 1957, while at Western University, he was the President of the Summer School Student Association and had the opportunity to organize social events. During one of those events, he met Margaret Cook from Watford standing on the bank of the Avon River in Stratford, while on a trip to the Festival Theatre. They were married in 1959. Together, they were teachers, raised a family, enjoyed their time on the island, the symphony, theatre, travelling – and their many friends.


Les maintained a focus on inner-city schools, recognized that schools were in many ways the hub of their community, and fostered community-involvement for the betterment of both the school and the community. He was assigned to some of the most challenging neighbourhoods, to work his magic. He declined offers of promotion beyond the schools, choosing to have a more direct impact. Hundreds of teachers, and thousands of students, benefitted from his philosophy, dedication, and caring. Recalling some of the staff parties he hosted, we know his teachers also had fun.


When Les retired from teaching, he continued his efforts to support communities, and especially children. He was a central board member of the Toronto Educational Opportunities Fund, which provides breakfasts for children. His family often joined him at Chinese New Year’s dinners, and auction nights, to support the cause. Always an educator, he and a colleague ran a teacher and administrator training program. He volunteered at St. Timothy’s Anglican Church in welcoming immigrants to Canada and introducing them to English. He was also a member of the church newsletter committee. He had a love of music, a gift from his parents, who had met as members of the Waterford Choral Society in Ireland. He was a member of the Toronto Men Teachers’ Choir, as well as an original member of the Toronto Choristers.


His unyielding positive outlook on life was matched by his keen sense of humour, love of puns and desire to be kind. He was an avid reader and an excellent orator, with an incredible mind. His vocabulary was immense. He was a wizard at word jumbles, crosswords and cribbage. He looked forward to his monthly, full-day poker events, with food, conversation and friends.


While his efforts in his career and community work were tremendous and well-recognized, they were in fact far exceeded by the love and effort he gave to his own family. To be one of his children was an immeasurable gift. We all benefitted from his caring, guidance, wisdom, and support. We all knew how much he loved us, and he knew how much he was loved. Les and Marg instilled the value of education in their children and were proud of the 11 university degrees amongst their five kids.


Predeceased by his amazing wife, Margaret Jane (nee Cook) in 2001, he leaves behind a grateful clan. He was the loving brother of Elizabeth Birmingham; devoted father to Trevor, Beth (Andy), Blair (Deanna) and Bradley (Lucy) Birmingham, and Lesley (Brad) Bruce; revered Papa of Tyler (Sam), Benjamin (Kara) and Riley (Michaela) Bruce, Quinlan and Kieva Birmingham and Tavin Mitchell, and G-Papa of Norah, Aubrey and Blakely Bruce. He is also remembered fondly by his Sister-in-Law Jean Cook, her family Robert, Doug, Tracy, Sydney and Carson, as well as many friends and neighbours. We shall miss him dearly.


Wise, confident, optimistic, forward-thinking, and humble, Les had a tremendously positive influence on those who knew him, and on the communities that he made himself a part of. He made friend, upon friend, upon friend. Just last week, as he had done throughout his life in his typical generous way, he said to his family, “Thank you for everything you have done for me.” He would no doubt want to say “Thank you” to all his friends, and everyone who enhanced his life, and whose lives he touched.

Above all, we thank him.


Those who wish to honour Les may consider donating to one of the following: the Toronto Educational Opportunities Fund (; Camp Artaban (;  St. Timothy’s Anglican Church, Agincourt (; St. Andrew by-the-Lake Church, Toronto Islands (


A celebration of his life will be held at a later date.

Private Family Service

A Celebration of Life will be held at a later date
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