The legacy of Stephen Sander came full circle on September 19.
The former Bridgewater Elementary School (BES) teacher who went on to become a Vancouver real estate mogul was honoured for the $200,000 contribution he recently made toward a playground and community park.
The contribution was part of a larger donation totalling $1.2 million by way of thanks to the town for giving him a job at the school in the 1960s.
Sander, who is over 80, was unable to join in the special ceremony due to medical reasons.
However a video message from him taped earlier was played in the auditorium, which was full of students, staff, education and town officials.
Calling Bridgewater "my home town," Sander said, "I'm so proud of you Bridgewater...
"It was a long time ago, but I have never forgotten. You've been wonderful to me."
Sander founded the rental real estate company Hollyburn Properties, which is said to be valued at more than $1.5 billion, and said everything he has accomplished in Canada is because of the people of Bridgewater.
"I love you people of Bridgewater. And you are my heart and soul."
Representing Sander was a contingent of family members, including his daughter Karen, who negotiated the contribution contracts with the town and the Health Services Foundation of the South Shore, which received $1 million from the Sander family toward the $1.4 million cost of renovating existing operation room space and establishing a minimally invasive surgical suite at the Bridgewater hospital.
She was joined by her husband, Julian Bannister, their children, Austin, and Lexy, her brother Paul and his partner Mercedes Buchan.
Speaking to the audience, Sander's daughter recalled how the town's school board had given him a job that allowed him to come to Canada.
"This is something that my whole family - and there are a lot of us - are so grateful for. Because we, our children, our way of life here in Canada wouldn't exist if it wasn't for them going that extra mile for somebody that they didn't know, helping his dream come true."
But that wasn't the most special part, she told the students.
"The most special part is that in 100 big and little ways your community put your arms around my father and held him tight.
"They welcomed him. They encouraged him. And they made him valued and special," she said, adding the community did that at a time when a new face, a different face was something rare.
"And those gifts stayed with him and stayed close to his heart for almost 60 years."
Earlier, in unveiling a plaque near the playground commemorating Sander, Bridgewater's mayor David Mitchell said a few weeks previously he had the "privilege" of speaking to the senior Sander on the phone.
What he has taken away from that, he explained, is "it's people. It's people, it's people, it's people."
While he acknowledged the generosity of the Sander family, he reflected on how Bridgewater "stepped in, fought to bring someone from overseas" at a time when small town Canada wasn't always inviting to people from other countries.
"As the mayor of the town, there's nothing that fills me with more pride than this is who we are. This is who we are as a town.," said Mitchell.
Sander first expressed an interest in donating money to the Town of Bridgewater when LighthouseNOW spoke to him for an exclusive story published last year.
He said he had never forgotten the graciousness with which he was treated during the time he lived in the South Shore community. In 2017, his spokesperson, Shawnessy Luke told LighthouseNOW that Sander intended to make a "major monetary contribution to the community as a way to give back for the kindness and welcome he received many years ago when he arrived to Canada in Bridgewater, N.S."
In Vancouver, Sander is known for his philanthropy. His company has donated two MRIs at a cost of $1-million each to hospitals.
The family-run real estate company currently operates some 85 apartment communities with more than 5,400 suites in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Ottawa.
Sander - whose original name is Sukhwant Singh - was born in 1934 to a Sikh farming family.
His grandfather possessed the title of Rai Bahadur: an honour bestowed during British rule in India to individuals for their service to the Empire.
His family was separated and lost its wealth during the partition of India, which meant for a time he was virtually living on the streets.
Nonetheless, he managed to continue his studies in English, largely because he excelled in athletics. He was hired on as a teacher at a private school in New Delhi, Lucknow College, and was part of the Indian Olympic delegation as a cyclist.
It came to his attention that Canada and England were recruiting teachers from abroad to cover shortages amid the Baby Boom. He decided to pursue a job in Canada, aware that many Sikhs had come here in the past to help build the railway.
Before arriving in Canada, Sander ended up teaching in England. It was from there that Bridgewater Junior Senior High School recruited Sander in the early 1960s to teach physical education at the school.
He told LighthouseNOW at the time that his tenure teaching in Bridgewater was "probably the best start of his life."
Eventually, he would go on to teach in Windsor, Nova Scotia and later obtain his master's degree in physical education from Springfield College in Massachusetts. He settled in British Columbia in 1963, drawn to the large Sikh community there.
He changed his name to Stephen Sander, based on his mother's last name, and eventually became a Canadian citizen.
He came to own land near the Canada-U.S. border, which he sold in 1967. Inspired by the profit he had earned, Sander began dabbling in real estate.
As time went on, he says, he realized the profits to be made in real estate. He stopped teaching in 1972 and founded Hollyburn Properties.
Sander was invited back to Bridgewater 18 years later to speak at the school's graduation ceremonies. He was also presented with a key to the town.
In 2016, he named an award-winning high-rise tower his company built after Bridgewater.