He was a millionaire who shopped at Value Village for $4 ties. A bachelor until the end, he lived in a glass house surrounded by the sea.
But long before he died, the man known around British Columbia's capital city by the richest and poorest citizens as "Mr. Old Town" had decided to leave most everything he owned to the University of Victoria.
A former shepherd and dog trainer who emigrated to Canada from Britain a half century ago, Michael Williams believed an education was one of life's richest opportunities. He never went to high school.
Mr. Williams has left most of his estate -- including an oceanfront home, eight downtown buildings, an extensive art collection and Swans Hotel and Brew Pub -- to the university. It is the single largest donation from an individual in the institution's history.
One of the largest property owners in Victoria, he was known as "Mr. Old Town" because he transformed the downtown by restoring heritage buildings in the 1980s.
The eccentric millionaire and philanthropist died at 70 of a heart attack while on a plane to England last November.
The value of his estate is still being appraised, but friends and business acquaintances of Mr. Williams estimate it to be well over $10-million. His home and property on an exclusive piece of waterfront real estate outside Victoria known as Ten Mile Point are estimated to be worth $6-million.
With the exception of $120,000 that he has left to two relatives, his brother Alan and a nephew in Australia, the university is Mr. Williams' major beneficiary.
His will comes as no surprise to his surviving relatives in England and Australia.
"He always said he made it in Canada and he'd leave it in Canada," said Alan, 74, of Adelaide, during a recent visit to Victoria to attend a celebration of his brother's life. "He was his own man."
He didn't leave any money to his other surviving brother, Donald, a wealthy businessman who owns a heavy-machinery company in London. He left $20,000 to Alan's only child, Ralph.
"Fundamentally, he didn't believe in inheritance to individuals," said Michael O'Connor, a Victoria lawyer and executor of Mr. Williams' estate. "He wanted it to go to the public good." Mr. O'Connor, a long-time friend of Mr. Williams, said the value of the estate won't be known until next month.
Mr. Williams didn't want a funeral. He was cremated, his ashes sprinkled in Victoria.
Considered something of a ladies' man in his younger days, he never married.
For years, he rented out rooms in his old house on The Point to other single men in Victoria before they were married or after they were divorced.
"It was a bachelor's pad," recalls Mr. O'Connor, who lived at the house in the 1970s.
The majestic new house, built with glass windows from ceiling to floor, is perched on a bluff overlooking Smugglers' Cove with a breathtaking view of the snow-capped Mount Baker in neighbouring Washington state across the Juan de Fuca Strait.
Mr. Williams has left the house to the university, as well as the hotel, including a brewery, restaurant and bar downtown.
"He hoped [the university]would continue to operate it," Mr. O'Connor said.
Mr. Williams built himself a penthouse suite in Swans where he lived for a time, a friendly regular to staff and customers in the bar.
He wanted his home at Ten Mile Point to be used by the university for visiting dignitaries, receptions and marine biology studies.
Mr. Williams had owned the property for decades and the house was his life-long dream. He built it with the university in mind and oversaw elaborate landscaping including a lookout point and waterfalls two years ago. He lived there for the last year of his life.
University officials aren't saying much about what will be done with Mr. Williams' holdings while his estate is still going through legal channels. "Michael Williams was a great friend of the university and we understand that he made the University of Victoria a very generous bequest," said university spokeswoman Patty Pitt. "But it is inappropriate to comment on it until the will has gone through the proper procedures."
Mr. Williams received an honorary degree from the University of Victoria in 1990 for his restoration of Victoria's historic Old Town. He later commissioned 12 aboriginal artists to create furnishings for the university's convocation ceremonies. Mr. Williams was a keen supporter of artists, amassing a private collection of nearly 900 paintings and sculptures from the Pacific Northwest, much of it by natives.
"He would think nothing of spending $2,000 on an unknown artist's painting but would shop at Value Village on Seniors' Day and buy a $4 tie," said his friend Gerald Hartwig.
He was born in 1930 in Ludlow, Shropshire County, England, where his father, a police officer, also ran a successful farm. He learned to herd sheep on the family's farm and dropped out of school at 14. But he dreamed of living in Canada.
"Everything he read as a boy was about Canada and the first nations people," said his brother, Alan.
The family's mark on B.C.'s capital city has deep roots. Mr. Williams' maternal grandfather, Jack Jenkins, a stone mason, came from England to help finish two of the city's most recognizable buildings -- the Fairmont Empress and the provincial legislature. At 20, Mr. Williams moved to Vernon, B.C., to work as a shepherd. He moved to Kelowna before settling in Victoria in the late 1950s, where he worked as a dog trainer and opened a kennel. His sheep dogs and flock of sheep were once a regular highlight of Victoria's May Day parade.
He acquired a taste for real estate after making a profit on the sale of his kennel land. He nearly went bankrupt in the 1970s with one of his first major acquisitions -- a downtown building -- but bounced back with the successful renovation of Swans, a former feed store he called his "ugly duckling" during the transformation in the 1980s.
He lovingly revived old buildings, adorning them with his trademark vibrant colours and overflowing flower pots. He said in 1987 that people in North America were tired of sprawling suburban malls. "People want surprises downtown, and that means colourful and visually interesting surroundings and lots of independent shopkeepers."
His restoration projects have been credited with the rebirth of a once run-down part of the city as a lively neighbourhood of restaurants and shops. "He always had a keen eye for creating something beautiful out of nothing," Mr. O'Connor said.
He was a quiet philanthropist. Every month, Mr. Williams donated $1,000 to the Open Door ministry for street people. He built a homeless shelter, which later burned down. He often gave sandwiches from his restaurant to the homeless who knew him by name. Some people called him Uncle Michael.
Mr. Williams organized a businessmen's bus trip to support logging demonstrators in Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island. He gave the Friends of Clayoquot rent-free office space.
He enlisted his good friend, retired realtor Eric Charman, to oversee the fundraising to help cover the Open Door's $25,000 deficit before he left for England. "Do me a favour, Eric," Mr. Charman recalls Mr. Williams' last words to him before leaving in November for England for a one-week holiday. "Don't conk out on me before you do this."
Mr. Williams died on the flight to London on Nov. 9. But his legacy lives on in Victoria's Old Town, said Mr. Hartwig. He remembers walking through some of Mr. Williams' dilapidated buildings in the 1980s after he received a permit to demolish them for parking lots. Stepping over debris and dead pigeons, Mr. Williams changed his mind at the last minute. He said 'No, these could be beautiful again,'" recalled Mr. Hartwig. "The buildings spoke to him."