Boisterous, a loving family man, and a man of the people with the common touch.
Those were the overarching themes of the eulogies given by the sons and grandchildren of Mel Lastman, at his Dec. 13 funeral, at Toronto’s Benjamin’s Park Memorial Chapel. The former mayor of North York, and later, mayor of the City of Toronto, died Dec. 11 at age 88.
Only family members spoke at the funeral of Lastman, a furniture salesman who had a legendary career in municipal politics. He served as mayor of North York for a record-setting 10 terms from 1973 to 1997, and was the first mayor of the new mega-city of Toronto, following the amalgamation of six municipalities, from 1998 to 2003.
Lastman was also the third Jewish mayor of the City of Toronto, following Nathan Phillips (1955-62) and Phil Givens (1963-66).
Toronto Mayor John Tory, former mayor David Miller and Ontario Premier Doug Ford were all in attendance at the funeral.
Granddaughter Brie Lastman spoke of “the grandfather who told us silly stories at bedtime… and a loveable prankster” who would indulge in wrestling games. A man of good humour, she recalled the time he would treat the grandchildren with “a hot dog and a silly movie.”
Lastman’s son Dale, who could not attend from overseas due to pandemic restrictions, phoned in his eulogy.
He spoke of the fondness his father had for everyday people. “He treated everyone the same—whether a leader of a G7 country or a stranger on the street. He had more interest and time for the stranger than any leader. He treated everyone with respect.
“Every time you walked down the street, you felt you were with a rock star,” Dale recalled. “People didn’t love him because he was famous, lowered their taxes or shovelled their sidewalk. It’s because people identified with him, and he was one of them. He was the same, just on TV more.”
Lastman’s health began to deteriorate soon after Jan. 1, 2020, when his wife Marilyn died, which was no coincidence, according to Dale.
“There will never be a cure for a broken heart—that is what’s so special and what we will all live for,” he said. “In my world, that is the true measure of worth; it validates and represents what is important.”
In a similar message, Blayne Lastman, the mayor’s other son, noted the respect his father had for the everyman. “No one was too big or too small; the chairman of the bank, or the teller.”
Blayne said he experienced a special relationship with his father, after his 1991 re-opening of the Bad Boy furniture chain which his father had sold in 1975. “He had an energy about him, infectious and contagious, and I was so lucky to see that.”
Grandson Bradley added: “We all grew to love the boisterous, charismatic man. We knew the hilarious, empathetic grandfather.
“I thought of going to synagogue as a chore, but he made it as the ultimate outing—it even meant taking me out for Chinese food, even during Yom Kippur.”
The former mayor’s warmth was illustrated by a story recalled when a woman passed Lastman on the street and asked to take a photograph of him, but the camera didn’t seem to work. Lastman walked with her to a nearby store, and bought the batteries so she could take the photo.
Though not mentioned at the funeral, another story exemplified the humour and authenticity Lastman was known for, as well as his Jewish pride.
On one Saturday morning during the Taste of the Danforth festival, in August 2000, loud cheering and the chattering crowds were heard outside a small synagogue, run at the time by filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici.
The Torah reading had to be paused, due to the noise. A congregant went outside to see what the kerfuffle was about, and spotted Lastman shaking hands with passers-by. Lastman was then invited in for an aliyah, which he gladly accepted.
When asked what his Hebrew name was, he said “Moshe ben Laibish,” and then paused, put his finger in the air, and exuberantly added “Meyer Moshe” with a wink—a play on words that elicited chuckles. And so, the chazzan called up to the Torah “Mayor Moshe ben Laibish.”
Without the aid of a cue card, Lastman recited the Torah prayers fluently, and in a Yiddish accent, no doubt harkening back to being the son of Polish immigrants and his childhood attendance at the Anshei Minsk Synagogue in Kensington Market.
Amongst his philanthropic endeavours, Lastman was an honorary patron of Sunnybrook Hospital, and an elected governor of Baycrest Hospital.
He was predeceased by his wife Marilyn. He is survived by his sons Dale and Blayne; his brother Allen, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.