Some birthday. Some present.
Soon to be 96 years old, Winnipeg arts patron Douglas MacEwan is walking a kilometre a day to raise funds for the city’s four major performing arts organizations.
On Nov. 11, his birthday, he will have reached 96 kilometres and raised $96,000. The money (to be divided equally between Manitoba Opera, the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, Royal Winnipeg Ballet and the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra) is being donated by an anonymous benefactor.
“It’s all very exciting,” MacEwan told The Globe and Mail by phone. “We’re having a hard time right now with this virus.”
He’s referring to the devastating effect the COVID-19 pandemic is having on performing arts communities across the country. MacEwan, a philanthropist and retired radiologist, knows about hard times. As soon as he was old enough, he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1943. Posted to a squadron under what was known as Coastal Command, he patrolled the Bay of Biscay and the Irish Sea, on the lookout for German submarines.
It was during his time in England that his appreciation for performing arts was cultivated. “A buddy and I went to to see Richard III in London,” recalled MacEwan, an Ottawa native. “I had studied Shakespeare in high school but had never attended a professional production.”
It wasn’t just any performance of Richard III, and it wasn’t an understudy spouting “my kingdom for a horse” that night.
“I saw Laurence Olivier at the peak of his skills," said MacEwan, who also took in the ballet at Sadler’s Wells Theatre. “I’ve been very interested in the arts ever since.”
After the war, he studied medicine at McGill University. He specialized in radiology because the loud airplanes in which he flew during the war had damaged his hearing. “You don’t have to talk to patients,” he explained. “I only needed my vision.”
For his current strolls, MacEwan sticks to the same route around his neighbourhood. He steadies himself with ski poles – “I tend to fall over otherwise” – and is accompanied by a new partner each day. The benefactor, identified only as a “family friend,” offered to double his donation if two people did the walk. The sum is to be topped up to an even $100,000.
The money comes in a time of need. “These are rocky times,” Royal Winnipeg Ballet artistic director and chief executive André Lewis said. The company’s tour of The Wizard of Oz that included three stops in the United States was cancelled, as was the 2020-21 season opener Alice (in Wonderland).
Still, plans call for the annual Nutcracker to open in December, and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School is now open for business (with public-health protocols in place). A school scholarship bears MacEwan’s name.
“He’s been very generous over the years, and not just with money,” Lewis said. “He’s a renaissance man. That is how I would describe him.”
MacEwan’s favourite Royal Winnipeg Ballet production is Swan Lake. He often visited Stratford Festival in Ontario over the years; seeing Hamlet there is among his top thrills. He enthusiastically approves of waltzes, especially Blue Danube. He doesn’t care for contemporary artists, which he defines as “anything after the early Beatles.” His go-to composer is Beethoven, Symphony No. 9 being his most cherished piece of music.
His other passion is his garden, a place of pumpkins, legumes and gladiolus. It is where he meets his walking partner each day. “I shown them around and we talk about the weather,” said the retired doctor, who pronounces himself to be in excellent heath.
His specialty is no longer X-rays, it is beans. “I cook some and freeze the rest,” he said. “I have them all winter.”
Did you catch that? The 95-year-old man who walks a kilometre every day is full of beans.
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