Losing a well-fought battle with leukaemia, long-time resident Michael Howe died peacefully at Hospice Niagara Tuesday, Dec. 29, at the age of 74.
In his final days in hospice care, from Christmas Eve on, says his wife Marsha, she was able to be with him around the clock.
Although the pandemic means she came home to an empty house she had shared with Michael for the last 20 years, with not even their son, Chris, able to travel from his Alberta home, Marsha says, “there is not a corner of the house, or in my being, that he’s not with me now.”
The couple met “on the streets of Niagara-on-the-Lake,” and became childhood sweethearts when she was 14 and Michael was 16.
When she says they met on the streets of town, she is referring to her childhood, and Michael’s, during a time when couples of the post-war era, raising kids during the 50s and 60s, met often for dinner and socializing, the kids playing outdoors.
Both Marsha, whose family in Niagara goes back generations, and Michael, whose parents Margherita and Norm moved here to raise their four children, were part of that group of kids.
They both went to Niagara District Secondary School, and then away to university — Michael to Queen’s University, graduating in 1968 with a business degree and a Masters in business administration, Marsha to nursing school. They married in 1974.
He is known best in Niagara-on-the-Lake for his love of the community and its heritage, and was president of the Niagara Foundation. His father Norm was one of the founders, his mother Margherita a founding member of the NOTL Conservancy, so his dedication to heritage preservation came naturally, says Marsha. “They absolutely passed it on to Michael. He and Norm were close, really good with one another as father and son. I could see Norm passing that on to him.”
“Michael’s love of the community, and love of heritage, was bred in the bone,” agrees Niagara Foundation vice-president Brad Nixon.
“He had a natural, nuanced understanding of the community, and provided consummate leadership for the Niagara Foundation.”
His leadership was always provided in a quiet manner, “and often took care of details that might have otherwise been dropped,” such as keeping in touch with people.
Despite his busy schedule of travelling for work, “he was always able to pick up on foundation business and move forward,” says Nixon.
He was thoughtful when weighing development proposals, would consider the consequences, and come up with an opinion which he would share, but never in an autocratic manner. “He was very much a consensual, collegial leader.”
In recent years, he was most concerned about the Wilderness, a King Street property with natural and built heritage the foundation is in the process of purchasing, changes on Queen Street, and extensive residential development he believed to be inconsistent with the style and heritage of the town, says Nixon, and had a very broad range of interests, consistent with the mandate of the foundation.
Michael, adds Nixon, was “observant, intelligent, and very witty. He sometimes didn’t suffer fools gladly. He was also compassionate, although that wasn’t something he wore on his sleeve.”
Nixon describes him as “socially progressive, in a quiet way.” Athough the inner person was quiet, “he loved to party,” especially a local party with people from the community.
“There is no doubt his home was here. This is where his heart was,” says Nixon.
“We’re going to miss him. He was a good friend to all of us, and to the community.”
Michael’s career was spent with KPMG as a chartered accountant, and he continued working until November, throughout his treatment. His expertise in risk management became known internationally, and he had travelled extensively, working most recently for KPMG in their offshore practice in Bermuda and the Cayman Islands, says Marsha.
He had retired at the age of 64, Marsha says, and worked for the Pan Am Games being held in Toronto in 2015, also in risk management, before agreeing to taking on more KPMG projects.
Marsha says they travelled together frequently, especially to Italy, where her sister lives.
It was there, in September, 2019, that she noticed Michael experiencing a shortness of breath during a hike in Capri, that was new for him.
“We’d been going there for eight or nine years, and this was different.”
Back at home in November, Michael underwent a vigorous medical investigation, and “there were all kinds of red flags,” she says, including low counts of red and white blood cells, and an absence of platelets, that meant he wasn’t getting enough oxygen.
He was diagnosed on Christmas Eve, 2019, with MDS, or Myelodysplastic syndrome, sometimes referred to as pre-leukemia.
After two months of chemotherapy at the Walker Cancer Centre, there was no improvement, says Marsha, and they were told Michael’s disease had progressed to leukemia, and would be very difficult to cure.
Marsha began driving him to the Juravinski Cancer Centre in Hamilton for treatment around the end of March, she says, just as COVID had shut everything down.
“I never even met his doctor,” she says. “I would drive him there for his appointment, and sit outside in the parking lot, in the extreme heat of the summer, while Michael went through all his treatments on his own.”
During that time, she says, “he was doing okay. We were walking, and he was a little slower than usual, but he looked okay. But he wasn’t getting a good remission.”
Marsha says the events of the last year brought them closer together than they had ever been. They had time to talk, “and we went through this together. Nobody else understood the disease. And Michael never stopped hoping for remission.”
His doctor suggested a new drug, and had enrolled him in a clinical trial at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto, but Michael became too ill, she says.
“He was so accepting of it. He did whatever he was told, and just kept hoping for the best.”
They had a last getaway together after Thanksgiving, to a friend’s cottage in Owen Sound, but after that, he developed a fever, and was hospitalized.
“I can’t tell you the amount of chemicals and medication he received. It was absolutely overwhelming,” says Marsha.
She stayed with him, and as a registered nurse, became his primary caregiver throughout both his stay in the hospital and hospice, along with staff in full masks and gowns. She was the only visitor he had.
Being both a Leo and an A-type personality, Michael didn’t want company as he declined — he was a proud and private man, says Marsha.
One memory of her long-time companion makes her chuckle.
“He was always so nattily dressed. He’d come down the stairs ready to go out, and Margherita would say, ‘you look like you just stepped out of a bandbox,’” an old expression that means spotless and neatly pressed, which he was, she says. “That was something he enjoyed.”
With only 10 people now allowed at a funeral service, Marsha says the family is instead hoping to have a larger, outdoor gathering this summer.