By Amit Shilton
Last week one of the most beloved members of the Ryerson community died. His family knew him as Ronald Alexander, a father, husband, and international engineer. Ryerson knew him as Ernie, everybody’s favourite street meat vendor. For 25 years, he served hot dogs at the corner of Gould and Victoria Sts. But while it seems that Ernie knew everybody, not many people knew him.
The hot dog legend died last Wednesday night in hospital from medical complications after being admitted Sunday with pneumonia. He was 80 years old.
Born Ronald Keith Alexander, Ernie earned a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Toronto in the 1970s. He worked for a British fibre-optics company dealing with cutting-edge technology. As a globetrotting professional, he flew to Russia and Japan and always brought his children back presents from his adventures.
“He was brilliant as an engineer,” said his son Dennis Alexander, a 46-year-old accountant. “He did go to Russia, when it was the Iron Curtain, as one of the top engineers when nobody was getting into Russia.”
However, Ernie also led the typical lifestyle of a suburban hockey dad. Whether it was driving his four children to the arena or helping with schoolwork, Ernie was “the father that really supported the kids,” his son said.
“When you envision a great father, that’s what he was,” Dennis said, adding that Ernie cared more that his children would be well-rounded adults rather than ‘A’ students. “He was the softy, he was the good cop.”
But when Dennis was in his mid-20s, his father left the family. He says there was a three to four year block where Ernie completely disappeared.
Dennis said his father came back a different person. He refused to continue his life as an engineer, he just wanted to work with people and serve hot dogs. To this day, Dennis doesn’t know where his father’s passion for hot dogs and the public came from.
“That’ll be the huge mystery,” his son said, speculating that maybe Ernie suffered a stroke or a mental block. “I think he reinvented himself as Ernie, he became a different person.”
Even in a musical tribute about his life, Ernie’s character struggled between the corporate “Ernest” and his identity as “Ernie” the hot dog vendor.
Nelles Van Loon, a former Ryerson English professor, penned the play cleverly titled “Ernie the Hot Dog Man: the Musical,” with the help of the street meat vendor. Van Loon says it took about 10 years before the play took shape, with Ernie insisting it be presented as a musical the whole time.
“Ernie was definitely a showbiz guy,” Van Loon said. “He was so full of energy and imagination.”
But when the first notes rang out last October in The George Vari Engineering and Computing Centre, Ernie was nowhere to be found. Five months after he hung up his tongs and retired, rumors circulated about the mysterious legend’s whereabouts. Some said he moved out west, selling his Ernie dogs across British Columbia, while last week’s obituary in the Toronto Star reported he spent several weeks in homeless shelters.
Ryerson philosophy professor Betty Trott, who played Ernie’s love interest in the musical, said he eventually got a chance to see a recording of the play.
But beyond his trademark cheese sauce and fried onions, Ernie made another extraordinary contribution to Ryerson student life. One day each year he donated the proceeds of his hot dog sales to a bursary fund that gave a needy Ryerson student $500 during the second semester. Since it was established in 1991, the bursary fund has amassed nearly $27,000 and helped 22 students pay their Ryerson tuition.
“It goes on forever. It will be there forever and I think we’ll be looking at ways to increase that endowment so that it will not only live forever, it will continue to grow,” said Ryerson President Sheldon Levy.
After his retirement, Ernie settled into the Beaches’ Liberty Place Retirement Home. But instead of slowing down, he did not stop giving back. He organized a weekly movie night for residents of the seniors’ home and was described by Lynne Hester, the home’s activationist, as a “super poker player.” When the residents would take a taxi on group outings, Hester said Ernie would insist on taking public transit and meeting them there. He even had plans to visit mayor David Miller to demand that more be done for seniors.
Alex Deposada, who currently runs Ernie’s old stand, says it’s important to keep the Ryerson legend’s spirit of giving alive.
The 36-year-old is in the process of continuing work on the bursary, and last week partnered with Ryerson’s rowing team and donated 50 cents from every hot dog sold to the fund.
“He’s pretty famous for all the contributions he made around here,” Deposada said. “Many people who studied here 15 years ago come and ask for Ernie.”
And if Ernie has his way, students won’t forget about him that quickly.
In an interview with the Eyeopener last month, Ernie hinted at becoming the school’s official ghost. As students would walk around the campus at night, he said they would hear him moan in a spooky voice: “hooooooot doooogs.”
— with files from Jesse McLean