Family of Ken Sexton reflects on his life

By Laura Kusisto
Granddaughter of Ken Sexton

Kenneth Graham Sexton, a husband, father, grandfather, philanthropist, world traveler and jazz lover, who built a major building supplies business starting with just $3,500, died early Thursday morning. He would have been 91 on Monday.

Ken grew up in a boarding house in Toronto’s Little Portugal. He came to western Canada in his early twenties as part of a junior chamber of commerce trip and stayed, seeing it as the land of opportunity. He would turn out to be right. He started out at a car wash in Edmonton, eventually becoming a manager at Bird Building Supplies.

Ken was an avid tennis player from the age of 14 until his early 80s. While playing badminton at the Regina Winter Club, he met his wife of nearly 63 years, Elizabeth. They were married in Moose Jaw. A son and daughter, James and Joan, soon followed.

In 1967, Ken saw that drywall was replacing plaster as the product of the future but most suppliers shied away from it because it was easily damaged. He used the proceeds from the sale of the family cottage to rent a plot of land with a shack, an outhouse, a used forklift and a truck with questionable brakes. Kenroc turned a profit in its first month. It was $1.43 but a profit nonetheless.

To celebrate its 50 years of being in business, a book was created to capture the lessons Ken Sexton learned while building Kenroc into the best building materials distributor in Canada.

Kenroc eventually grew into a group of businesses with reach across Canada, the United States and Asia and more than 300 employees. In 2002, Ken was awarded an industry achievement award by the Western Retail Lumber Association. He would happily talk about business until late in the night with anyone who would listen and continued to visit his office at the company headquarters almost until the end.

Despite — or perhaps because of — the fact that he was never able to complete high school, Ken had an unmatched curiosity about just about every topic. He collected more than 300 records from jazz pianist Oscar Peterson and learned to play the piano in his sixties. He loved the law and would argue for hours with some of the city’s most accomplished legal minds, such as Morris Shumiatcher. He visited Japan, England, Egypt, Greece, Hong Kong, New Orleans and Taiwan, among many other places. As recently as a few years ago, he could be found zip lining in Costa Rica.

Ken was visiting a friend in the hospital when he noticed the walls in the hallways were bare. He began hanging pictures in hospitals himself — characteristically unconcerned about whether he needed permission. That initiative grew into the Hospital Art Foundation, which collected more than 3,000 donated paintings that still hang in Regina hospitals today. When his beloved daughter died in 2003 from liver cancer, he began donating a portion of his company’s profits to liver research. After he suffered a stroke in 2010, he donated to a range of charities devoted to brain research.

Ken is survived by his wife Bette and son Jim, as well as his son-in-law Brian Kusisto, daughter-in-law Carol Sexton and three granddaughters Laura, Megan and Jillian.