FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, recalls conversations with the late Harold Milavsky
April 30, 2013
Last October (2012) I made some calls. Sure, I wanted the interview, but more than that I wanted to say good-bye to Harold. I had no idea the best time for that had already passed. I knew Harold was ill with dementia – but I was advised he had ‘good days’. I wanted to do a full interview with him, on one of those ‘good days’, but his assistant Ann and right-hand son-in-law Mitch Brody told me it wasn’t going to be possible.
While I expected to write a respectful memory – fond tribute to him while still alive and well, able to respond to my scintillating questions, his death came as a surprise, a shock, not that it came, but that it came so soon. I knew he was ill, but had no idea how severe his illness was. Sure, he was over 80, but that’s young these days – especially for someone who was so active.
Last time I saw him – spoke with him, shook his hand and glimpsed his eye-twinkle - was at this 80th birthday party.
Harold Milavsky died December 4, 2012 at age 81.
So many people in our industry knew him far better than me – but my connection, if you could call it that, was a unique one – and each time I’ve talked about Harold with former colleagues and employees, it seemed to me we all knew a slightly different Harold.
If you want to read a great bio on him, check out the piece Kelly Cryderman wrote for the Globe and Mail. Her information was gleaned from affectionate comments of friends and family members. Kindly written I suppose, as obituaries are, but what struck me when I read it was that it seemed to me Ms. Cryderman had never met Harold, that she didn’t know him. I thought that was an essential element missing from the piece. So far as I know, it tells the history of Harold accurately, but it doesn’t tell the story of Harold.
Let me start further back to the 80’s, in my Edmonton days I managed a property for a group of Montreal investors. One of them, Leo Goldfarb had worked with Harold Milavsky in the early days of Trizec (Great West Saddlery days) when they worked together on development projects in Calgary and Edmonton in the late 1960’s. I’d heard of Harold, a commercial real estate industry legend but had never met him – though after a few stories, I wanted to. To Leo it was affectionate story telling. To me it was being regaled by stories of a true master from one of his protégé’s.
Leo told me, scolded me in fact – when we discussed my relocation to Calgary in 1999 – that I should look up Harold Milavsky. I made the call, he invited me join him for lunch. We didn’t lunch often, but our paths would cross on street corners or at fundraising events, political conventions, and other unusual places.
Some of my memories, in no particular order . . .
. . . when I was moving into Eau Claire Estates, 2001 I believe it was, I was unloading a bunch of loose items from my car – and juggling them, when two guys sprinted across to my car to help. They were both too old to be sprinting but they saw my distress and sprang to the rescue. Neither of them seemed to realize that special moment as I did, they were just helping a clumsy guy not wreck things he should have packed in boxes. Harold Milavsky and Gerald Knowlton – not one legend, but two, saved my treasures from damage. What I soon realized was that those two were carrying everything that was in my back seat, all I could do was open doors for them. I said thanks more profusely than you could imagine – not so much for the fetch/carry, but for giving me that moment with the two of them. Then Gerald went on his way. Harold stayed to talk - he wanted to know how I was doing, how my divorce was going, how my kids were.
… when I was chairing the BOMA Awards committee in Calgary, we hit upon a great idea – to establish a Lifetime Achievement Award. Great idea. We also thought, if we were going to propose the award, we should have a first recipient. Harold Milavsky was the obvious choice. That innovation didn’t find traction with the BOMA board who, I expect, now regret having not established that award and having Harold as its initial recipient. Aside from his enormous contribution to the industry, to the city together with his philanthropy, his companies were strong supporters of BOMA and its award and education programs. I resigned from the BOMA committee and refused to renew my membership. It was my little protest.
. . Davis Cup is, or at least it was when I was an age-grouper growing up, the holy grail for tennis players. Those amateur-only days are long gone and the sport is stronger than ever in the pro era, due in large measure to Davis Cup which involves country-to-country competition. As President of Tennis Canada, Harold brought Davis cup competition to Calgary. Spectacular play. I remember the first time, it was Harold on the phone selling me a box, “come on Mark, don’t buy two tickets – take a box and take some friends”. I’ve not met anyone who refused a sales pitch from Harold. Somewhere in that conversation was a comment, “I want you to meet my daughter . . .". He had several daughters, so I assume one of them was unattached at that time. I never got to meet the daughter, but I bought the box.
… bumping into Harold in the parking garage on a Sunday morning as he was off to play tennis was always a treat – he would stop, not so much to talk real estate or tennis, but to hold court. Sometimes it was three minutes, just as often a half-hour. Mostly, he talked about his trips – like heading off to climb Kilimanjaro – not so much about Africa or the mountain, but about taking one of his grandchildren along. I wasn’t a grandfather back then, but now that I am, those stories have a lot more heft.
... his unofficial title, Mr. Calgary, was well earned. I don’t know if his ‘patron of the arts’ elements were as much Harold as they were Marilyn, but the rest of it was pure Harold. Remember Expo in Montreal? The stick people – the statues you see on the CalgarySchool Board logo, on the old school board headquarters site. Bought, transported and paid for by Harold. He didn’t seek limelight for those things. But enjoyed telling the stories of how the deal was made. His eyes lit up, like he was doing a deal on a million sq. ft. building.
. . . one day, on a street corner, Harold was fuming – we walked a couple of blocks together. He was fuming. Furious. I thought his hat would catch fire! He’d been to a board meeting, or some similar magnitude event (Harold sat on so many boards I have no idea how he had time to get his own business/work done). Anyway, he was fuming – mad at Ron Southern. About the way he spoke to and treated his daughter Nancy at that meeting. It was hard to tell what Harold was most mad about – the way a CEO treated a senior executive, or about how one man treated his daughter. Somehow, I don’t think it was about the meeting, or Southern’s public embarrassment, but about a father being upset with another father. Projecting a bit? Perhaps it was. It was visceral, rage, and disgust.
… Harold’s involvement in politics – particularly the role he played in Alberta’s Progressive Conservative Party, were a great delight. He was proud of being party treasurer, but more proud I think of his unofficial title of fundraiser-in-chief. At a policy convention I attended in Red Deer one year he corralled me in a corridor, urged me to get more involved (I wasn’t enough already?), to help him with fundraising. For two years I ‘made my calls’, so many of them to the lighter-hitters on Harold’s enormous list. It was a bit like the Davis Cup tickets – if it was Harold calling, or someone calling on Harold’s behalf, not much persuading was required. I really enjoyed those meetings in his office – going over spread sheets with the attention he would pay to corporate budgets, reminding me who I needed to call, who needed a nudge .. and who HE would call! One thing sticks strongly in my memory – and I wish I’d kept some – were the letters he would send out to donors explaining why supporting the political process was so important. Sure they included standard stuff you would expect an accountant to include about tax consequences of a donation, how much got you what – but it was his passionate prose about why we do it that hit me most, that I remember most strongly. I’ll never forget it.
… no recollection of Harold would be complete without talking about those parties – annual affairs at his Millarville place. Hundreds of luxury cars that had never been off any road, snaking their way across an old hay field to park, then walking to those sunny Sunday afternoon events – solstice parties with straw men and dancing fairies etc. The events were theatre-like productions, that part was mostly Marliyn I think. But the guest list, the people you would meet, that was all Harold. Quietly schmoozing like I’ve never seen a room worked before. It was a large outdoor ‘room’. I’ll never forget the goats being roasted on a spit. I’ll never forget the tug on an elbow, “Mark, there is someone over here you should meet . . .” .
His closest colleagues and family won’t forget him – they’ll preserve his memory, but for the rest of us, time moves along and we are so caught up in events of the day we don’t spend much time thinking about those who are gone.
I never saw the difficult or harsh side of Harold, though I know from reliable sources it was part of his structure – but I won’t gossip about things I didn’t learn first hand.
In the commercial real estate field in North America, there are a few great legends – Harold was one of the finest. Was he always a gentleman? His reputation was stellar in so many fields of accomplishment, it would be unkind to say he was unkind. To say he was difficult or obstinate seems understatement though. I’ve heard stories he was difficult to work for – demanding to be sure, fiercely competitive when going after a deal and always, always, the smartest guy in the room . . . any room. Who would expect less of someone who built a massive asset legacy, wealth and profits?
Pretty good for an accountant from small town Saskatchewan.
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