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lives lived

Milton Carman.Courtesy of family

Milton Carman: Buddhist. Writer. Composer. Cyclist. Born Feb. 14, 1929, in Toronto; died Jan. 27, 2020, in Victoria, of colon cancer; aged 90.

Milton Carman was a transformational character who reinvented himself continuously over the course of his 90 years.

Milton was the youngest of three born to Jewish parents who emigrated from Eastern Europe. His childhood was not easy. Ruth, Harvey and Milton went to school at a time when anti-Semitism was rampant in Toronto, and they endured verbal and physical abuse meted out by teachers. When Harvey died of pneumonia at the age of 7, his parents’ marriage never recovered.

Milton was in high school when his father, a renowned tailor, died of cancer. With his mother to support, Milton put himself through university by managing a pub and hotel.

Milton completed a political science degree at the University of Toronto but dreamed of becoming a writer or composer and moving to Paris. Practicality led him into journalism. He started with an entry-level job as a copywriter for the United Press International wire service and soon moved on to the CBC and the Toronto Telegram.

Milton married Leila Rotenberg, had a son, James, and eventually left journalism to become the founding executive director of the Ontario Arts Council. His leadership helped the province blossom into a cultural centre for the arts.

By the late 1960s, Milton found himself drawn to the counterculture. He quit his job, got divorced and travelled the world for the better part of a decade with a Buddhist teacher, studying therapy and meditation. He became ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist teacher.

By 1978, this intense period of his life had run its course. He parted from his second wife in Santa Fe, N.M., with nothing more than a smelly Volkswagen van and barely enough money to get back to Canada.

He had a friend at an arts magazine in Victoria and decided he would try his hand at being a film critic. Here he met Carol Lane, a former Alberta cattle rancher and Carol often says it was Milton’s résumé she fell in love with first.

The couple moved to Ottawa in 1979, when Milton became a senior policy adviser to the foreign affairs minister. But Milton and Carol’s not-so-secret desire was to move somewhere isolated and write fiction. The unexpected arrival of a daughter, Tara, did nothing to deter them. When they had saved enough, they packed up their six-month-old infant, flew to Auckland, New Zealand, and drove south until they found a suitably isolated house on a beach.

Five years later, a second daughter, Shannon, was born. Shortly after her birth, the family returned to Victoria to help Carol’s mother. Milton was by this time 57, married to a woman 22 years his junior. They decided she would support the family financially as he raised their girls. Being a stay-at-home dad in a rural community was not easy, but Milton said it was the lesson he needed to learn. All the while, he wrote books and plays, even a children’s musical.

In later years, Milton was probably best known in Metchosin, his Vancouver Island community, as the slightly hunched figure riding his bike, always ready to stop for a chat. There was never any small talk with him – unless, of course, it was a good Jewish joke. Conversations quickly became about the big questions. He was, as he was fond of reminding his family, their “consigliere,” always there to advise. And he still is. We have just had to learn new ways to listen.

Tara Carman is Milton’s daughter.

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Lives Lived celebrates the everyday, extraordinary, unheralded lives of Canadians who have recently passed. To learn how to share the story of a family member or friend, go to tgam.ca/livesguide