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'You were a one-off:' Equestrian Ian Millar pays tribute at Ron Southern funeral

CALGARY – Mourners gathered at a riding arena described as his “cathedral” to say goodbye Thursday to a prominent Alberta businessman who founded one of the world’s top equestrian venues.

Ron Southern, who died last week at age 85, established Spruce Meadows in Calgary with his wife Margaret in 1975.

Spruce Meadows has become a fixture for the best riders and horses. The equestrian world’s governing body has named the facility the world’s top show-jumping venue multiple times.

Southern’s daughter, Linda Southern-Heathcott, remembered her father as a man who saw the good in others and taught his family to always do their best.

“Dad, my promise to you is that Nancy and I — along with your team — will keep the traditions alive. We will keep the highest of standards, have the courage to make the right choices no matter how difficult and we will soldier on.”

Southern’s coffin, sitting at the front of the riding hall, was covered in red roses. Some of his awards, including the Order of Canada, could be seen in one of the building’s walkways.

More than 2,000 people attended the two-hour service. Dignitaries who came to pay their respects included former prime minister Stephen Harper, interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr and former Bank of Canada governor David Dodge.

Ian Millar, an Olympic and Pan American Games medallist, delivered one of the tributes and credited the Southerns and Spruce Meadows for making Canada a force in the sport of show jumping.

He remembered a special moment when Southern held a ceremony when Millar’s longtime horse, Big Ben, retired.

“The day concluded with the presentation to Big Ben of a blanket to wear in his retirement. The words on the blanket said, ‘Thanks for the memories, Big Ben,” Millar said.

“I say right back at you, R.D., ‘Thanks for the memories.’ You were a one-off. There will never be another R.D.”

The choice of the riding hall seemed appropriate, Spruce Meadows vice-president Ian Allison had said before the service.

“It’s Mr. Southern’s cathedral. It’s where he spent countless hours welcoming people from around the world, teaching them about his world of the horse.”

Southern and his father also started the Atco Group (TSX:ACO.X) in 1947. It was first known as the Alberta Trailer Company and grew from a 15-trailer operation to an international conglomerate with interests ranging from construction trailers to pipelines to natural gas distribution.

Southern was also the founder and controlling shareholder of Akita Drilling (TSX:ATK.A).

Forbes business magazine pegged Southern’s net worth at $1.5 billion last year.

Daughter Nancy Southern said her father loved his family and everyone he had dealings with over the years.

“If you listen carefully, you will hear him saying to each of us: always do your best, always strive for excellence and thank you everyone for helping us to make our dreams come true.”

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