Actor, charismatic youth worker, story listener, lover of life. Born on July 21, 1955, in Roblin, Man.; died on Oct. 31, 2013, in Vancouver, of colon cancer, aged 58.
“The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time,” as James Taylor once sang. Barry Mickelson lived those words every day.
He was a prairie boy who dreamed of becoming a famous actor and found success working with young people, freely sharing his love of fun, celebration and the possibilities he saw in everything.
Barry moved to Calgary in his early 20s, and became a tireless worker at a children’s mental health centre, Wood’s Homes, where he was a supervisor of a residential program. Most evenings and weekends, he could be found at local theatres, acting for fun not money. He often took along young people from the centre, and also started a drama project at Wood’s Homes called Summerstock. The project continued for 20 years and gave young people a valuable venue to write, produce and act in their own plays.
Barry’s boundless energy and enthusiasm drew many to him, although he was actually a very shy and private person. When he was younger, he had friends galore. Over the years, he committed himself to a smaller circle of friends, and was extremely generous with his time, interest and support. He often described himself as “such a lucky man” to have these rewarding relationships. Barry had the rare gift of being an exceptionally good listener. He would settle in for a visit with the command, “So, tell me some stories,” and then be on the edge of his seat for the details.
In 1989, Barry moved to Vancouver to pursue acting full-time. He appeared in film and television, including roles in MacGyver and De zomer van ’45, a Dutch production about Holland and the Second World War and Canada’s part in the liberation. But making a living as an actor was challenging at times so he also worked with kids in the foster-care area at the Children’s Foundation, which works with special-needs children. He also maintained a strong connection with Wood’s Homes and often returned to Calgary to help with projects – even though he hated the snow and cold.
Colon cancer came unexpectedly in 2004. On one hand, Barry’s life changed drastically. On the other, he simply carried on doing what he loved with fervour. He continued to travel. He completed the Ride to Conquer Cancer, biking from Vancouver to Seattle. He attended concerts by Moby and James Taylor in between chemotherapy treatments and surgeries. He strengthened relationships with family and friends. He worked. He met new people. He fell in love. He never lost his joie de vivre and determination to celebrate everything.
Three days before he died, my daughters and I travelled from Calgary to Vancouver to visit him at his hospice. True to form, he was waiting for us, eagerly anticipating our visit. “Just look at you!” he said when we arrived. Then, “Let’s drink champagne!” He pointed to the fridge, where we found two bottles of fine champagne, cheese and crackers, and even flutes in the freezer. We followed Barry in his wheelchair out to the deck and sat in the fall sun, toasting life and telling stories.
Barry died on Halloween night, which Vancouver celebrates with fireworks. I am sure he was one of the flares soaring high in the sky that night. He was a bright star that burned out far too soon.
Jane Matheson is a friend and former colleague of Barry.