A Man of Firsts

Jack Riley.You could say that local resident, 91-year-old Jack Riley gave old Hungarian House building at 840 St. Clair Avenue West the spark of life. He was part of a team of electricians hired to wire it when it was built as the Shaarei Shomayim synagogue.

Jack Riley’s given name is Joshua Nathaniel Riley. He smiles, “But everyone calls me Jack.” His family goes back a long way. His father, Herbert Preston Riley, was originally from Barbados and came to Toronto via Nova Scotia. He was the head blacksmith at the TTC.

Jack Riley and his father.

In 1926, when Jack was four years old, Herbert Riley moved his family from downtown Toronto to north of St. Clair, just off Oakwood. That made the Rileys one of the first black families in the City of York.

Jack attended local schools D. B. Hood and Vaughan Road Collegiate. In the early 1940s, he was the high school’s first black graduate. “I loved French class, comment ça va?”

Football team at Vaughan Road Collegiate in Toronto.Jack joined the army as a corporal and was stationed in Nova Scotia. When WWII ended he returned to Toronto and continued his education at Ryerson where, in 1945, the Toronto Training and Re-establishment Institute was created to train ex-servicemen and women for re-entry into civilian life.

JJ Riley Electrical Contractor anniversary medallion.Jack was the first black student to graduate with an Electrician’s Certificate. In 1953 he founded his own company, JJ Riley Electrical Contractor, and went on to wire many buildings. “I knew Rabbi David Monson, he hired me to do some work at Beth Sholom synagogue on Eglinton Avenue.” A big job came to him through his D. B. Hood school friends, the Pusitano brothers and Andy Ucci, who were builders. “They hired me to wire the entire north side of Brendwin Road in the west end. I even bought a house on that street.”

  – Elizabeth Cinello

This article can be found in WHAT’S HERE, in the section Portraits.
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