Michael Milhausen: Teacher. Artist. Tour guide. Bon vivant. Born Sept. 29, 1946, in Kitchener, Ont.; died March 1, 2021, in Halifax, of chronic neuropathy and a broken heart; aged 74.
He spent his first months sleeping in a dresser drawer. Michael Milhausen was one of a set of twin boys and very small at birth. His parents lay him in a shoebox inside a dresser drawer and placed it near the fire to keep him warm. Sadly, his twin brother Peter failed to thrive. As the survivor, Michael said that it was because of this start in life that he felt grateful to be alive each day.
An extrovert and a natural mimic, he spoke beautiful French and Spanish. A career as a language teacher flowed naturally from this talent, but he was no ordinary classroom teacher. In 1998, he received the Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence. His aim was always to provide real-life cultural experiences for his students. To this end, for 18 years he organized all of the international exchanges for London high school students. During his lifetime he visited Europe 40 times, sometimes escorting language students and later accompanying school choirs and other groups to European destinations.
Post-university, Michael spent a year in Avignon, France, honing his skills in sketching and landscape painting. He rode through France and Spain on a moped and ran with the bulls in Pamplona. Soon after those adventures, he met his future wife, Jennifer, and they settled in London, Ont. Both were small in stature but large in personality and engaged in their community. Michael was a whirlwind as a polka dancer and always first to grab a jiving partner.
Sometimes it seemed as if Michael was always “on”: full of energy, with a trilling laugh that got him through any awkward moments. He also had a tendency to finish Jennifer’s sentences, to her chagrin. Surprisingly though, given his high energy, he was able to fall asleep anytime, anywhere, including on the city bus en route to work.
Jen and Michael had two children who benefited greatly from their parents’ embrace of different cultures. When Kate and Peter were young they spent one summer in France en famille and another in La Pocatière, Que. Both children are now functionally bilingual.
After retirement, Michael and Jennifer moved to a converted schoolhouse near Walter’s Falls, Ont. Not yet finished with language teaching, Michael hosted a weekly group of 10 or 12 local people who wished to improve their spoken Spanish. He joined the Walter’s Falls Group of Artists and began painting the rolling countryside and farmhouses nearby, and enjoyed participating in their annual exhibition.
Unbeknownst to the hundreds of students whose love of languages Michael fostered, he suffered for decades from an affliction labelled “chronic neuropathy.” No cure was available and the condition worsened over the years. In 2016, he and Jennifer moved to Nova Scotia to be closer to their son, Peter, and his family. Even then, when he was no longer able to sketch, Michael would admire the view of horses grazing outside their rural home near Mahone Bay, and exclaim “What a life!” Or sometimes “Ah, quelle vie!”
In August of 2020, Jennifer died from cancer. Michael survived her for only seven months.
Jane Leney is Michael’s friend and former colleague.
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