He got the world talking about the importance of early childhood.

Dr. Fraser Mustard’s impassioned campaign calling attention to the crucial first years of life — and how brain development during that time sets the stage for health and wellbeing — inspired economists, educators and politicians around the globe.

Closer to home, the Ontario government’s recent move to full-day kindergarten can also be traced to his influence.

Mustard died at home Wednesday night after battling cancer. He was 84.

Premier Dalton McGuinty called Mustard a “personal hero” and said his death is a major loss to the education community in Ontario and abroad.

“He was such a strong, articulate champion on behalf of children and early childhood education,” said McGuinty, who first met Mustard in 1996.

“He was one of the first ones to make the connection, if we make the early years right, a child is set for life. If we get them wrong, it takes a lot of investment to turn them around,” McGuinty said.

“He was ahead of his time.”

Charles Pascal, the province’s early learning adviser and architect of the full-day plan, said Mustard’s legacy “will impact better futures for millions of children.”

In their groundbreaking 1999 Early Years Study commissioned by the province, Mustard and co-author Margaret Norrie McCain called for parenting centres to support families, starting at pregnancy. They would provide health services, preschool programming, parenting resources and child care, and would save billions down the road, the study argued.

The third part of that study, which Mustard also co-authored, is to be released next week.

“Fraser was transformative in my life,” said McCain. “He gave me a life mission and a PhD from the College of Fraser Mustard. He truly was life-defining and life-altering for me.”

Mustard always worked at an incredible pace, and in recent years was named thinker-in-residence for the South Australian government. He was booked for as many as 60 speaking engagements a year.

Earlier in his career, he was part of the research team that discovered how Aspirin could ward off heart attacks. He also helped found McMaster’s innovative medical school.

Honoured with the Order of Ontario and Order of Canada, Mustard was founding president of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, which brought together experts from across the country from all disciplines and eventually led to his interest in the early years.

He also made his mark locally. A decade ago, he helped save Toronto’s Bruce Junior Public School from closing, one of the rare times the school board voted against shutting down a school. It became a testing ground and model for Ontario’s full-day kindergarten. He was also instrumental in establishing Toronto’s Beatrice House for homeless mothers.

“I think Fraser Mustard will be remembered as the great renaissance man of Canadian intellectual life,” said David Naylor, president of the University of Toronto.

“(There’s) a massive array where Fraser Mustard’s wonderful fingerprints will live for all time,” Naylor said, calling him “an absolute giant, who has had a huge impact on this country, and a man of unflagging curiosity and great generosity of spirit.”

Award-winning and world-renowned, Mustard could be an intimidating figure who spoke his mind. But he also had a softer side; during an interview with the Star about a month ago, he cooed at and cradled Betsy, one of two office tabby cats.

But his toughness was all in the name of getting power-brokers to realize the health of society depends on the health of its children and that early brain development was key.

“Fraser had a very commanding presence,” said Pascal. “It didn’t matter whether he was talking to a disciple or a head of state around the world, he was a five-star general serving up orders to do better when it comes to kids.

“And when someone with political power balked at investing in early child development, Fraser mused, ‘There’s someone whose childhood didn’t go as well as he thinks.’ ”

James Fraser Mustard was born in Toronto and attended Whitney public school before being accepted to the prestigious University of Toronto Schools for high school.

At the University of Toronto, he was a star varsity football player known as “Moose” Mustard because of his mop of black hair and dark beard, Marian Packham wrote in the biography J. Fraser Mustard: Connections & Careers.

Mustard married Betty Sifton in 1952, and they had six children. He became a doctor in 1953 and first worked at Toronto General Hospital and later Sunnybrook hospital. He also studied at Cambridge, Packham wrote.

Mustard’s eldest son, Cam, recalled the family, stuffed in the station wagon, driving to their farm north of Guelph on weekends.

“It was a great opportunity for us as kids to spend a lot of time outdoors and with each other, and with both parents, in a concentrated way, for a weekend. No television, sometimes no heat . . . it was wonderful.”

Mustard, who was still going to his office until about a month ago, also made time for his grandchildren.

Although his small talk could, admittedly, be intimidating — “So what are you going to be when you grow up?” — the grandkids had a lot of affection for him, said Cam.

Mustard was working with Naylor to establish an Institute for Human Development at U of T, which is still in the early stages and will draw on expertise across many disciplines.

Jim Grieve, the Peel public school board’s former education director who is now in charge of implementing full-day kindergarten in Ontario, called Mustard “Canada’s gift to the children of the world.

“There’s not a country I’ve been in that doesn’t know Fraser,” he said.

Grieve was one of a group of friends who dined with Mustard about a month ago, “and we said, ‘We’ll keep this going, in early human development — as he liked to call it — and his response was, ‘Well yes, you’d better.’ ”

Charles Coffey, a former executive vice-president of RBC Financial, said he became “a disciple” of Mustard’s in the mid-1990s after realizing the issue had social and economic implications.

“He was relentless. He pushed and pushed and pushed me to do more, and I did,” said Coffey, who estimates he himself has given more than 300 speeches on early childhood development.

In the spring of 2010, the two were in Whitehorse for a speaking engagement “and he was bigger than life, really,” added Coffey.

“He was behind the podium thundering along . . . and people were glued to every word he had to say.”

Mustard, who was predeceased by his wife, leaves his six children and nine grandchildren. A celebration of his life will be held in the Great Hall at Hart House, University of Toronto, at 1 p.m. on Nov. 25.

Source: Toronto Star – http://goo.gl/6SX2K