But everyone chuckles when they recall Milavsky’s tennis style. He would wear his opponents out – but he was more heart than skill, and Ghitter nicknamed him “Milobsky.” Even during a casual match, his anger flared when Ghitter hit a ball out of bounds.
“He wasn’t really a good tennis player,” Ghitter said.
“He was tenacious in whatever he did, in business and tennis. It was take no prisoners. It was fair and with honour, and the like, but he was a competitive individual.”
Milavsky never let up, taking a prominent role in the Calgary Stampede – where Calgary’s elite compete for top-drawer volunteer posts – and the 1988 Winter Olympics.
In 1989, he was in the news under more bizarre circumstances. Two men with connections to the Ku Klux Klan were sentenced to five years in prison for conspiring to blow up a Calgary Jewish centre and Milavsky’s home. The plotters didn’t realize that Milavsky, who had recently been awarded the B’nai Brith Award of Merit, no longer lived in the house that was the intended target.
At times, Milavsky ventured into the world of public policy. In 1989, he spoke about the need to forge broader public acceptance of higher taxes to reduce Canada’s national deficit and, ahead of his time, said a tax surcharge on the wealthy shouldn’t be ruled out. Against the Alberta grain, he welcomed the implementation of the national sales tax.
“Everyone is going to have to deal with their fair share,” he said.
However, most of his involvement in politics came down to fundraising.
“Milavsky raised more money for the Progressive Conservative Party in Alberta than everyone else combined,” said Rod Love, an Alberta political operative and chief of staff to former premier Klein.
He also gave advice. Love remembers a 1993 lunch meeting at Edmonton’s Petroleum Club, during which Milavsky sat Klein down just a month after the upstart politician had won the leadership of the PC Party. He told Klein that people were going to approach him to say they wanted to donate to his party, but he had to be wary of those who asked what they would get in return – whether it was an appearance at a ribbon-cutting ceremony or a fast-tracked government permit.
“Milavsky looks at Ralph, and he says, ‘Mr. Premier, no matter what anybody asks for, you look them in the eye and you say, ‘For your donation, you will get good government.’”
By 1993, Trizec was grappling with a daunting list of maturing debt, and Milavsky, amid restructuring at the top of the company’s management ranks, announced his retirement as chairman of the board.
In the years that followed, he remained busy – working out of his Quantico Capital Corp. office and serving on dozens of corporate boards, including Viterra, TransCanada, Enmax, Telus and PrimeWest Energy.
Brian Felesky, a Calgary accountant and tax lawyer, said Milavsky was regularly sought out as a business adviser.
“Harold was always seen as the person that the CFO and the audit committee had to be really prepared for, because he had this innate sense to ask the question that was the seminal question, and that would be precisely pivotal to the financial reporting,” Felesky said.
“It was an intuitive sense about an incongruity or something out of step.”
On weekends, Gregory recalled, his father gave his time to the family. Often they skied at Sunshine Village in Banff, where Milavsky had worked on a number of expansions during his time at Power Corp.
“The family would load up the station wagon, head out to the airport and pick him up from his flight, head to Banff, ski Saturday and Sunday, drive back into the city and, on Monday morning, he’d be on another airplane,” Gregory said.
“It was wonderful skiing and wonderful time in the mountains.”
In recent years, as his father’s dementia progressed, his son said there was an unexpected silver lining in that it removed Milavsky’s ability to obsess over details, forced him to slow down and allowed him to enjoy more time with his family.
Although friends say Milavsky wasn’t overly “mushy,” there was a different side when it came to his 12 grandchildren. He always boasted about their academic and athletic accomplishments, especially when it came to skiing and tennis.
“Especially in later years, he seemed to live for the tradition of the whole family gathering in Florida,” Felesky said. “He did that year after year. And then he would feast off the stories from Florida until he did it again. And that was kind of lovely.”
Milavsky was married and divorced twice, his second marriage being to clothing designer Marilyn Romanosky. His five children and his only surviving sibling, his sister Jean Bortnick, were at his side when he died.