John “Nova” Chisholm, legendary entrepreneur, philanthropist and mover of dirt, died in the early hours of July 4th at the age of 68.
Born in Antigonish on January 5th 1946, to Donald and Margaret I Chisholm, John co-founded with his father Nova Construction, one of the largest road building companies east of Quebec. When it came to the business of moving dirt and building roads, John was a natural from the start.
The Chisholm clan, whose centuries-old motto was I am fierce with the fierce, was a family of farmers, loggers and earth-movers. Mechanical competence was considered a necessity of life. So at age 4, with his father looking on stoically, John Nova learned to drive a tractor. He bought his first D4 dozer at 17 and won a contract to dig the basement of the Angus L. MacDonald Library at St. Francis Xavier University, happily cutting classes to do so. Later that year, following the assassination of John F. Kennedy – a watershed event for his generation, John quit school for good and founded Nova Construction.
One of the company’s first major jobs was building a large section of highway in Newfoundland. For John, landing in pre-TransCanada Newfoundland was “like getting dropped on the moon.” But he loved the work: the camaraderie of his crews, creating smooth, straight, well-built roads where there were none before. Most of all, he loved beating the pants off the competition – a passion for which he would never lose his appetite.
In 1975, at age 29, John and his team started construction on what is still considered to be among the largest and most successful industrial projects ever completed in Nova Scotia – the Wreck Cove Hydroelectric Plant. For the next three decades, John led Nova Construction’s expansion into ever larger and more successful industrial projects: the development of Porcupine Quarry, considered to be among North America’s finest sources of quality aggregate; the construction of the Cobequid Pass, and the establishment of Pioneer Coal, a reclamation mining company with operations throughout Cape Breton and Pictou County. He also played an instrumental role in the conception of the Confederation Bridge. His son Donald succeeded him as President of Nova Construction in 2006, but John remained active in the business until his death.
John played as hard as he worked. A lover of NASCAR racing, he traveled to Tennessee in the mid-1960s to scope out the legendary Bristol Motor Speedway, and ultimately created a replica, the Riverside International Speedway, upon which his son Donald races today.
Quiet and old-fashioned, John believed that actions spoke louder than words. While he was well known for substantial gifts made to a number of organizations including the IWK Children’s Hospital and the Coady International Institute at Saint Francis Xavier University, many people around Antigonish were touched by his everyday kindness and generosity. In 2011, he was recognized for his significant contributions to Nova Scotia’s economy with an honourary degree from St. FX, and in 2013 he received an honourary degree from Dalhousie University. And so, 48 years after dropping out of high school, he finally graduated. What an awful pile of dirt it took to make that happen.
John was always incredibly grateful to the many loyal and committed employees of Nova Construction, past and present, who contributed to the success of the Nova group of companies.
John will be mourned and deeply missed by his wife, Anne; his son and daughter-in-law Donald and Kellie Chisholm; his daughter and son-in-law Julie Chisholm and Aly Mawji; and the delights of his life, his grandchildren Emily, Shelby, Nahla, and Kieran.
He is survived by his sisters, Marilyn (Vernon) Dee, Helen Landry, Claire (Roy) Rasmussen, and Maria (Gerry) Grant; aunts Sister Marie Raymond, Florence MacDonald, and Sadie Jones, as well as numerous nieces and nephews.
He was predeceased by his parents, Donald A. and Margaret I. Chisholm, brother Owen, and brother-in-law Paul Landry.
Cremation has taken place. Visitation will be in C.L. Curry Funeral Home, 135 College Street, Antigonish on Sunday, July 6th, from 7 to 9 pm and Monday, July 7th, from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 pm. Funeral Mass will be held in St. Ninian’s Cathedral on Tuesday, July 8th at 2:00 pm with Reverend Donald MacGillivray presiding.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Coady International Institute, the IWK Foundation, the Antigonish Community Food Bank, or a charity of choice.