Monday, January 2, 2012

Remembering Milton Wong

I was very saddened to learn last night of the death of Milton Wong. I knew that he had been ill with cancer since Easter, but was always optimistic he would beat the disease and return to community life. Sadly, this didn't happen. Milton Wong was a remarkable man and he'll be mourned by people from all walks of life.

I'll never forget the first time I met Milton. It was an event on the North Shore of False Creek celebrating his role in the creation of Vancouver's Dragon Boat Festival. He was joined on the stage by his beautiful family and I vividly remember thinking what a lucky man he was.

I got to know him much better in his role as Chancellor of SFU. We both started at SFU in 1999 and over the next six years spent quite a bit of time together. Milton was very interested in community planning and building and took a keen interest in the creation of UniverCity. He was particularly interested in sustainability, and played a significant role in advancing the discussion about sustainability both within the university, and also within the broader business community.

When I returned from my around-the-world Sabbatical in 2007, Milton was one of the first people I met with. He and Michael Clague, Gerry Zipursky, Joe Wai, Ray Spaxman, Mike Harcourt and others had created a new entity called Building Community Society (BCS). The goal was to bring together a group of professionals and the various interests in the Downtown Eastside to develop a comprehensive plan and development strategy to improve the neighbourhood and the lives of the people living there. I was invited to join the group and for the next eight months we met on a regular basis. While I eventually left the group to run for City Council, a very dedicated Milton continued until his illness. At BCS he demonstrated his trademark patience and ability to bring consensus to controversial issues.

I mention these three things because they exemplify the breadth of Milton's interests and commitment to community.

He started the Dragon Boat races and the Laurier Institute because of his interest in both multi-culturalism, but also 'inter-culturalism'.

SFU became a canvas for a variety of interests, from programs in sustainability to a new school in Africa. Here he loved to mix with students, faculty and staff and the broader community. Today the Milton and Fei Wong Theatre is a key component of SFU's School for Contemporary Arts in the Woodwards Building.

He had a real passion for Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside and this was demonstrated by both his commitment to BCS and his collaboration with Joe Wai in the restoration of a building housing Modernize Tailors, the family business. He loved to reminisce about his youth in Chinatown and I believe this was a major factor in his efforts to improve the lives of people in these neighbourhoods.

And all of this was just a fraction of his life and interests. I don't need to talk about his financial acumen and career. But this was really a means to an end.

I was always impressed by the fact that although Milton was a wealthy man, he lived for many years in the same house on Cambie Street. It was a very nice, comfortable house, which had been added onto over the years; but it was modest when compared to where people of similar wealth might live. Milton loved his house and his life there with Fei and his family.

(Although after we combined two penthouses at SFU to create a very nice residence for the university president, he did approach me to see if there might be a similar opportunity to create something like that for him and Fei. That discussion didn't last very long!)

In a way, Milton was a lot like another former SFU Chancellor.... Jack Diamond. Why? Because both had the ability to walk with kings and with the common man. Both were revered by an incredibly broad range of people; and both were very generous, often doing things anonymously. I know this will be evident when a memorial service is held for him later this month.

While Milton lived a very full 72 years, he died much too young. There was so much more he wanted to do and I hope that his vision and passion for Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside will live on in the work of others.

I am so glad that I got to know and work with Milton, and my thoughts go out to Fei and his family, and all those who worked very closely with him for so many decades. Rest in Peace, Milton.

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