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Obituary for Michael George Stewart Denny

Michael  George Stewart   Denny
Professor, economist, peony specialist, husband, father and grandfather.


“Esse quam videri.”

I) Obituary

Died on 27 December 2013, with family at his side. Loved by Judi, his wife of 49 years, plus children Chris (Jennifer), Sean (Sara), and grandchildren Rachel, Cate & Jasper. Brother to Peter (Marion) Denny, Sally (and the late Michael) Adamson, and Joanna (Christian) Primavesi. Uncle to Tory, David, Lisa, Diana, Anne and Ellen.

In keeping with Michael’s wishes, there will be no formal funeral service. Cremation has taken place. Plans are underway for a celebration of Michael’s life in the summer of 2014.

Michael lived his life without reservation or apology. Born in Toronto to Denison and Joan (Eve) Denny, Michael attended Upper Canada College and Trinity College School. He graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he played varsity ice hockey, in 1963. His highlight from Boston was meeting and marrying Judi. Together they moved to California, where Michael completed his PhD in Economics from the University of California, Berkeley in 1969. They then returned to Toronto, where Michael became a Professor of Economics at the University of Toronto, where he taught for over forty years. Respected by colleagues and students, one described him as: “Humble. Plain spoken. A ready laugh. A skeptical style. An independent spirit. A quick mind behind twinkling eyes.”

He approached the world from a stance of curiosity and playfulness. Michael’s wide-ranging interests included blues and gospel, ice hockey and Danish silverware. Later, he focused on nature (especially trees and peonies), which reflected his wonder in the world. He would often combine his passion with his profession, for example in applying social science to the study of peony blooms:

Michael was and is our family compass. He allowed us to be ourselves, giving us space to grow, while challenging us to ‘think different.’ His sons, now fathers themselves, value Michael’s ability to sit on his hands and let them find their way in the world.

II) Childhood

There are early memories of growing up on Russell Hill Road in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Michael describes his early childhood on the third floor of his family home:

“The trunk room was long and narrow, perhaps 7 feet wide and 18 feet long. It was called the trunk room because it contained the family collection of trunks and suitcases. My parents had both done considerable travel by steamship before WWII. This type of long slow travel involved the use of huge trunks, which my children will never use and even I never used. The trunks and suitcases were stacked all along one long wall with a very narrow passage. When I was big enough one could climb all along this wall of trunks. This required a little rearrangement. High up on the wall was a shelf, which contained hatboxes and a few smaller boxes. Two of these smaller boxes I remember. One contained my father's collection of badges and buttons from WWI. These were fascinating to explore although I never took them out of the room or discussed them with my father.”

“Both Jojo and I took piano lessons. Jojo took them for many years but I lasted only one year. Dad could play a few tunes and he liked music. My mother was not a music fan. Dad had a few harmonicas that he could play as well as an accordion. I think in a different setting he would have enjoyed much more music than my mother would allow.”

“We were the last of the radio kids. There was no TV in our house until I was perhaps 11 or 12. Radio was still the dominant form of mass entertainment and it was much different than today. There were variety, comedy and drama shows as well as hockey and other sporting events. I listened to many hockey and baseball games on radio.”

“I learned to swim at Bigwin Inn (1947). They had swimming lessons and I remember a very beautiful young lady who taught me to swim. At that time one learned by standing in the water and learning to breath under water while standing. We then learnt to float and kick with no arm motion. Hands were simply held over the head. I always thought that this was a useful way to begin since I was happy to put my face in and to kick. I remember the wonder at finally opening my eyes underwater and seeing. Small events -- big deal!”

“Most of my youth, we had only one car. During a brief span, Dad decided, without consulting me, that he would have `his car'. One was the 1948 Rover. It was bought used, had red leather seats and was black.
It was the last car we had with a running board. Running boards are magical because you could stand outside hang on through the window and ride. Lest my imagination run wild we were seldom allowed to do this. My best memories of this are on long private roads at Lake Simcoe.”

III) Adulthood

For the past few years Michael and Judi have had their two sons living in California and New Zealand. When news of Michael’s illness arrived, we drew inspiration from our friend Hugh Silk, who suggested what we would call ‘the letter initiative’ (a living eulogy). Knowing that Michael would be uncomfortable with a large formal gathering, instead we requested written submissions from his students and colleagues. Their response was overwhelming:

On meeting ‘the Professor’:
“In the fall of 1983 I sat in one of the terrible lecture rooms in Sid Smith waiting for my ECO326 (Advanced Microeconomics) instructor to arrive for the introductory lecture. A scruffy guy in jeans with a big belt buckle, rolled-up sleeves, and a pack of cigarettes entered the front of the class – I knew that professors came in various guises, but had not had the taxi-driver/bouncer style to that point (nor ever again).”

“Professor Denny. Denny. Mike. Michael. From the first moment, we knew he was different: the faded jeans; the well-ventilated gossamer-thin plaid shirt, that deep throaty laid back drawl, and the wielding of a ridiculously hard textbook. He apparently went to Berkeley during the late 60's which only added to the mystique.”

“Dear Mike, I’m sure you would allow me that appellation, as you are one of the least formal people I met in the University setting...your quality that stands out for me is human decency.”

On mentorship:
“As PhD director for a large part of my time at U of T, you helped keep me focused, and threatened me appropriately whenever I wasn’t. But you meant much more to me than simply a PhD director: you were my friend. You understood the trials and tribulations of the process, you lent a friendly ear, and you represented the humanity of my chosen profession. And you continued to guide and mentor me long after I embarked on my career.”

“What's most important, though, is the way that you had time for all of us students outside of the office and classroom, often over a beer. Your energy and laughter and teasing are the most memorable moments of all!”

“You were a huge part of my studies and career in economics. From your wise advice and sympathetic ear to your technical advice on my thesis, you were always there to lend a helping hand to me and the many other grad students who came to your door. It was from you that I learned what it meant to be a good grad program supervisor: to be open, honest, available and empathetic. Being ready for long chat over beer doesn't hurt either. You also taught me that a real researcher looks for evidence and answers, not fame and fortune, and that it is important to encourage and mentor others along in their research even if it is a distraction from our own.”

On attitude:
“You were among the people in the Department that always radiated this sense of good humour, approachability, and level headedness that made economics a joy to study at U of T. Thank you for that. You also instilled a sense of "good citizenship" in those of us who studied with you—that it's not just research for research's sake but also contributing to the research environment and building a research community.”

“Although it has been more than thirty years since we first met at the University of Toronto, many memories remain fresh. You were an atypical professor – quick to laugh, willing to run around on the soccer field and ALWAYS with your door open...It made the difference between swimming alone in a sea of academic uncertainty and...swimming together in a sea of academic uncertainty.”

“I have never seen Michael (in the 25 years we worked together) bad tempered or wearing a tie. Maybe there is a correlation there!”

“You showed kindness, an admirable approachability to your students, and an enthusiasm for the subject which was quite infectious (I realize of course, that I am drawing a conclusion based on a sample size equal to one, but I would still say that this is a significant result). :)”

“Irascible, irreverent and lovable. This is how we remember Michael Denny. Constantly talking, some would say muttering, but we needed always to pay attention because Michael's manner was deceptive. He gave us pearls of wisdom if we just listened, and heard.”

IV) Legacy

From his students:
“Quiet, no-nonsense professionalism, combined with an obvious and deep interest in Economics. We are occasionally reminded throughout our careers that we should always be aware of the potential impact of our actions on students and colleagues – you just never know when you are going to make a difference, subtle or significant, to someone. It’s unfortunate that it took this motivation to do so, but I’m very glad to have the opportunity to let you know that I was one of those people you just never knew would be significantly affected by your teaching and professional interactions.”

“Having lost my parents young, I had need for a specific kind of mentor. One that loved people, was smart, tender and tough, and professionally motivating but not monomaniacally so. I found that in Michael. Humble. Plain spoken. A ready laugh. A skeptical style. An independent spirit. A Quick mind behind twinkling eyes. Like any great mentor he teaches by example, about how to be personally and professionally good.

The way things go in life is that you rarely see the people that you'd like to see most, so we develop the ability to see them in mind, reflect on them, be grateful and delight in their personality. I've done that with Michael and will do so for the rest of my life.”

Canadian Economics Association
In 2012, Michael was awarded the Canadian Economics Association Distinguished Service Award:

“The CEA Distinguished Service Award is presented to individuals who have contributed outstanding and sustained services to the Canadian Economics Association and the community of academic economists in Canada. Winners of the award are selected by the Executive Council of the Canadian Economics Association.”

“When Mike stepped down as CEA Secretary-Treasurer, I asked Judi what he would like, and she suggested a Georg Jensen piece. I was surprised at first, but then realized it made perfect sense: Mike is someone who sees the beauty in simplicity.”

Canadian Peony Society
“When a long time Peony collection was being dismantled, Michael and Judi offered to take in the orphaned plants, keep them on their property and to find a permanent home. The Wally Gilbert Collection was the basis of today’s peony garden and Judi and Michael have had their hands on each and every one of the plants. In addition, the Denny’s have donated, from their own impressive collection, many plants over the years to enhance Canada’s largest contemporary collection of peonies.

Once the collection was established in Oshawa, Michael Denny has been instrumental in the production and upkeep of the map listing all 308 varieties. He also visits the garden regularly throughout the growing season to document the bloom times of each variety.”

From the family:
To his two children, he was a father who balanced a hands-off, laissez-faire approach to parenting with honest and occasionally stern guidance. For example, Michael provided this frank advice upon Chris’ acceptance into medical school: “You better go and try hard, they may not let you in again.”

On coaching (from one of our childhood friends):
“Your dad gave me my first computer lesson- on the PET desktop computer at Oriole Park Junior Public School- guiding me through programming my first video game- a small x careening down a canyon of o's - was the best thing i had ever seen and done- amazed my growing brain that i could write something in code and not only have the scene appear before me but be able to control somehow the movement of my little flying spaceship. awesome. also seeing your dad behind the bench at North Toronto Arena schooling us little tikes on the finer points of offensive and defensive strategy and when exactly it was your turn to get on the ice. His voice as I recall could be heard pretty much anywhere on the ice, unmistakable, deep and encouraging, coaching us through the growing lessons of our favorite game. Don't recall- but pretty sure he coached us to a winning season.”

For his three grandchildren, there remained an ever-playful element to his character. ‘Grandfather’ meant tractor rides at the farm, math problems, doodling and making silly faces at the camera. They get the last word:
Grandfather / Michael Denny
Dear Grandfather,
Where do I start? you are the best grandfather anybody could ask for. I hope you feel better, I miss you.
Great Person
Rachel and Cate's grandfather
A great tractor rider
Dad to my dad
To cool
Exciting to visit

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