Husband, father, economics professor, peony enthusiast. Born on Sept. 15, 1941, in Toronto; died on Dec. 27, 2013, in Oshawa, Ont., of cancer, aged 72.
When you look at a garden in early spring – the stubble of stalks, the wrinkled leaves, the remnants of snow – it is difficult to imagine that much is stirring below the surface. Similarly, you can know someone yet see only one side. People, like flowers, can be singularly subtle, brilliant and complex. Michael Denny was such a man.
Born in Toronto, Michael was educated at Upper Canada College and Trinity College School before pursuing studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and postgraduate studies in economics at the University of California, Berkeley. In Boston, he met his wife Judi, who would become integral part of his life for 49 years and with whom he would raise two sons, Chris and Sean.
The couple returned to Canada in 1969 and Michael became a much-respected and admired professor of economics at the University of Toronto. Colleagues and former students remember him as a mentor – quick minded, humble, plain spoken, independent, with a ready laugh, twinkling eyes and a dash of skepticism. For Michael, office hours extended to discussions over a beer in the lounge. In 2012, his contributions were recognized with the Canadian Economics Association Distinguished Service Award.
But there was much more to Michael than academia. He was passionate about many things – music, hockey, nature. He was enthusiastic about flowering shrubs and trees (in particular red oaks), and his interest in peonies originated with his mother. She involved him and Judi in selecting peonies for her gardens, and Michael caught the bug. When he discovered peony nurseries online, he began to order more, not only for his mother, but also for himself and Judi. Their garden in Toronto held 50 peony plants, and when they bought a beautiful stone home near Enniskillen, Ont., on 30 acres, their collection grew to more than 600.
Michael was a significant supporter of the Canadian Peony Society, as both co-editor of the CPS newsletter and the driving force behind the Peony Bloom Time project. This online project catalogues information from gardens around the world; it tracks the flowering period of peonies across their seven weeks of bloom, allowing people to identify and select peonies by their blossom time.
Michael also led the preservation of the important collection of peonies of nurseryman Wally Gilbert, of Elora, Ont. When Mr. Gilbert died in 2000, Michael, Judi and a handful of CPS members obtained permission to dig up the plants, identify them and distribute them to CPS members so the collection could be maintained and donated to public gardens across the country.
In 2001, many peonies from the Gilbert collection, augmented by a generous donation from Michael and Judi’s own holdings, formed the core of the peony garden at the Oshawa Valley Botanical Gardens. Since 2003, the garden has held a peony festival, for which Michael and Judi co-ordinated a CPS information booth and judged a peony bloom show, which draws hundreds of entries and thousands of visitors. In June, in recognition of the couple’s contributions, the city will rename the Oshawa Valley Botanical Gardens Peony Garden as the Michael and Judi Denny Peony Garden.
Courteous and generous, Michael was always willing to share his prodigious horticultural knowledge (and when it came to peonies, his dislikes), with anyone who asked. He did it with a gleam in his eye and a low, rumbling laugh. The peony world has lost a champion and will miss him greatly.
Blaine Marchand is Michael’s friend and fellow peony enthusiast.