Legacy lives on in UVic building named for philanthropist Michael Williams

University of Victoria student Hjalmer Wenstob calls himself Tlehpik, considers the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation his native country, and says English immigrant Michael Williams is part of his story.

UVic honoured Williams, the late Victoria businessman and philanthropist, on Thursday by renaming the Administrative Services Building the Michael Williams Building.

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At the ceremony, Wenstob, now a fine arts graduate student, recalled Williams as a friend of his architect grandfather, “a name and a face who was always part of my family’s stories.”

Wenstob said he was honoured this year to show his work alongside that of other First Nations friends and artists at the Legacy Art Gallery, 630 Yates St., a building Williams bequeathed to the university.

“With the show, all these loose ends got tied back together, all these stories got tied back together, and these friends came back,” said Wenstob, 23.

“It all came about because of Michael Williams and the legacy he left.”

Williams died of a heart attack in 2000, while on a flight to England. He was 70.

He left virtually his entire estate to UVic — including $17 million worth of buildings and businesses and a $3.5-million art collection.

Williams built his fortune from humble beginnings. After dropping out of school in England, he worked as a shepherd, then immigrated to Canada in 1950.

His bequest was the largest single donation ever made to the university.

The real estate alone, about three blocks of downtown Victoria, turned UVic into a significant player in the local economy. Perhaps the most notable building is Swan’s Hotel and Brewpub, 506 Pandora Ave., a reconstructed 1913 seed store turned into a boutique hotel and micro-brewery.

At the building naming ceremony, Carolyn Butler-Palmer, occupant of the Williams Legacy Chair in Modern and Contemporary Arts of the Pacific Northwest, said Williams’s most important gift is seen in the students at the university. “The students here at UVic are the real vectors of Michael’s values,” Butler-Palmer said. “The legacies of Michael Williams live on in their work.”

University president Jamie Cassels said the bequest has had a continuing impact.

“Since Michael passed away, the ripples of his gift are spreading across our campus, our university, and also through the community,” he said. “That’s the test of a real legacy — the impact it has 10, 15, 20, 25 years later.”

rwatts@timescolonist.com

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