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In Memoriam: George Cohon (1937-2023), business pioneer and Civic Association leader

George Cohon, a business executive who introduced McDonald’s restaurants to Canada and Russia, and a longtime Palm Beach Civic Association director, died on Friday, November 24, surrounded by his family at his home in Toronto.

He was 86.

Mr. Cohon was a part-time Palm Beach resident who became a Civic Association director in 2009 and who served as a member of the association’s Executive Committee since 2010.

Bob Wright, who retired in February after 13 years as chairman and CEO of the Civic Association, said he brought Mr. Cohon into the organization because he was a natural leader and fundraiser.

“He was a great member,” Wright said. “He participated in a lot of the activities, especially in helping to raise money. George would always step right up. He was honest and had a sense of humor. He was a special guy.”

Mr. Cohon was born in Chicago on April 19, 1937, to Carolyn and Jack Cohon. He graduated from Northwestern Law School in 1961. After serving in the U.S. Air Force, he returned to Chicago to join his father’s small law firm of Cohon & Raizes.

Mr. Cohon’s career took a dramatic turn when he represented a client in negotiations with Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s. That led the 30-year-old lawyer into the McDonald’s organization as the first international licensee obtaining the franchise for eastern Canada. His first McDonald’s opened in London, Ontario, in 1968.

Mr. Cohon, his wife Susan, and their young sons Craig and Mark began a new life in Canada. Within a few years, he was presiding over a prosperous national business that reached from coast to coast. In the mid-1970s, Mr. Cohon became a Canadian citizen.

Brian Mulroney, the prime minister of Canada from 1984 until 1993, said he and Mr. Cohon were friends for about 40 years.

“He was a delightful guy, a great friend and a wonderful family man,” said Mulroney, who is a part-time resident of Palm Beach.

Mr. Cohon founded Ronald McDonald House Charities Canada, a non-profit organization that provides accommodation for families with seriously ill children who must travel to access necessary medical care.

“He set that up and rendered great service to many families affected by cancer and other illnesses,” Mulroney said.

A chance encounter with the Russian delegation at the 1976 Montreal Olympics ignited a fierce determination in Mr. Cohon to cross the iron curtain and bring McDonald’s into what was then the Soviet Union. Years of determined struggle would follow. Then, in 1990, a McDonald’s restaurant opened its doors and began serving the first Big Macs to Russians in Moscow’s Pushkin Square.

Speaking to a Palm Beach audience in 2017, Mr. Cohon looked back on that long-awaited opening day in Moscow. By 6:30 a.m., 10,000 people were waiting in line. In all, the restaurant served 34,000 people that day – a record for any McDonald’s restaurant.

Persistence and determination paid off in the end, Mr. Cohon said. But there was another factor at play – something Mr. Cohon called “hamburger diplomacy.”

“It’s communism versus capitalism and I went into this country during all that,” Mr. Cohon told the Palm Beach audience at a public safety event focusing on leadership. “I never viewed them as the enemy. I never was afraid when I was there.”

McDonald’s became one of the most successful and celebrated businesses in Russian history. This culminated in Mr. Cohon receiving Russia’s Order of Friendship from then-President Boris Yeltsin in 1998.

In 1997, Mr. Cohon recounted his experiences in his bestselling book, To Russia with Fries: My Adventures in Canada and Russia – Having Fun Along the Way.

Mulroney said he was with Mr. Cohon when he met Mikhail Gorbachev to discuss his McDonald’s endeavor during a 1989 state visit to the Soviet Union.

“He saw the prospects of McDonald’s across Canada and across Russia,” Mulroney said of Mr. Cohon. “George was a true visionary and he delivered on his vision.”

In 1988, Mr. Cohon was made a member of the Order of Canada. In 2019, he was awarded one of Canada’s highest honors – “Companion of the Order.”

The level of Companion of the Order is the highest within the Order of Canada and recognizes national preeminence or international service and achievement. Mr. Cohon received the honor for his philanthropic commitment to children’s health and well-being in Canada and abroad, based in part on his work in establishing Ronald McDonald House Charities in Russia and Canada.

“George Cohon was remarkable,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau posted on X, formerly known as Twitter. “He was an accomplished businessman who never stopped giving back, and who dedicated himself to lifting others up.”

Cohon helped save Toronto’s Santa Claus Parade after funding for the beloved annual event collapsed in the early 1980s. Cohon and a partner helped establish a non-profit organization to fund the parade and signed 20 companies to sponsor floats in the first year. But Mr. Cohon was modest about his contribution.

“None of us individually is as good as all of us,” he said.

In 2012, then-Toronto Mayor Rob Ford handed Mr. Cohon a key to the city.

Brian McIver, a longtime friend of Mr. Cohon and a member of the Civic Association’s Executive Committee, said he was a “superstar” in Toronto.

“Having dinner with Susan and George at an outdoor cafe near his home was quite an experience,” McIver said. “Everyone around us wanted to meet him, shake his hand, and get a McDonald’s coupon. What an amazing ambassador – both for Canada and Big Mac.”

Michael Pucillo, chairman and chief executive officer of the Civic Association, said, “George was a person who had a very positive impact on every community that he was a part of, in Toronto and in Palm Beach. That’s the type of guy he was.”

Mary Robosson, the Civic Association’s president and chief operating officer, said she always took note of Mr. Cohon’s business acumen and of how he led conversations by engaging others and listening to them.

“He was constantly giving back,” Robosson said. “George cared deeply about the Palm Beach Civic Association and the employees of the Civic Association and other nonprofits in the area. George’s strategic thinking was exceptional and, coupled with his emotional intelligence and awareness, it enabled him to inspire an organization and team to be their best. We’ve lost a wonderful leader and friend.”

Mr. Cohon is survived by his wife, Susan; their two sons, Craig and Mark; their daughter-in-law, Suzanne; their grandchildren, Jonas, Amber and Parker; his sister, Sandy Raizes; and his nieces and nephews.

A memorial service for Mr. Cohon was held Tuesday in Toronto.