What Kai Madsen wants Winnipeggers to know is that the Christmas Cheer Board will go on. That it's in "good hands," he says, even as he stepped down this week after 52 years, most of which he spent at the helm. That the team he helped build there is "tremendous," and that they will do "such a terrific job."
Besides, he notes, they've been preparing for this transition for a long time. They knew it was coming and did what they had to do to ready the torch for passing: "I don’t see that there are going to be any major changes," Madsen says. "Other than the fact this old guy is going to be shrinking into the background."
So that's what he wants Winnipeg to know as he begins the retirement he used to not quite let himself think about taking. For as long as most can remember, he's been the face and the heart and the soul of the Cheer Board, and if it's hard to imagine a December without seeing him, well, it's strange for him, too.
"It’s very hard," he says. "At least, I find it very hard. The whole concept of retiring was something that, I guess by choice, I tended to put on the back burner. But realism sets in at some point."
He does not want to alarm anyone, he adds. He wants this interview to be gentle. He can't talk for very long, because the talking itself has become strenuous: "I'm sort of struggling for air these days," he says. But over the phone, at least, his voice sounds as rich and warm and strong as it ever has.
It's been six years since Madsen, who turns 82 next week, was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, an incurable condition that has progressively weakened his lungs.
"It's not a pleasant thing," he says, explaining that he's on oxygen 24/7, and the limits on his life have become "very difficult to deal with."
So now, he spends his days at the St. Francois-Xavier home that he shares with Lisette, his wife of more than 30 years. He has people who help take care of him, support workers who assist with the day-to-day tasks that Madsen can no longer manage. Even just taking a shower, he says with a sigh, is complicated.
Yet there's also this. Given the situation, he's doing all right.
"The whole concept of retiring was something that, I guess by choice, I tended to put on the back burner. But realism sets in at some point." – Kai Madsen
"I’m optimistic," he says. "We’re doing what we can under the conditions we’re dealing with. Life will go on."
What a moment, then, to pause and reflect on all that Madsen has done.
Consider how different the Cheer Board was when he started. The effort had been founded in 1919 by local churches to support the widows and orphans of First World War soldiers. Today, it distributes about 17,500 holiday hampers in a typical December, piled high with turkey and fixings and toys.
Last year, due to COVID-19, the Cheer Board for the first time gave out food vouchers, and dialed back the number of hampers to about 13,000. This year, the board expects to return to its usual figures and offerings.
But it was a much smaller operation in the fall of 1969 when Madsen started as a volunteer. Back then, the non-profit made its home in what he calls a "tiny little place" on Alexander Avenue, where he helped assemble hampers and learned the ins and outs of the job.
Soon, he grew close with a Cheer Board mentor named Dave Reece. The two delivered hampers, and on a few memorable occasions even found themselves venturing into downtown hotels on a mission to reacquire turkeys someone had filched to sell for beer. They'd get the birds back, one way or another.
"We’d go and get the beer and we’d all get a good laugh," Madsen says with a chuckle. "Then the turkey would be returned to the mother."
Back then, Madsen says, he would never have imagined he'd still be at the Cheer Board more than 50 years later. But he stuck around, joining the board and then, in the early 1990s, taking over the role of executive director.
"We’re doing what we can under the conditions we’re dealing with. Life will go on." – Kai Madsen on dealing with COPD
"The Cheer Board grows on you," he says. "It kind of takes over your life."
Madsen became famous for his uniquely personal style of leadership. He had a knack for cajoling support from local businesses, an effort he describes as running the Cheer Board on "handshakes" and which former board president Shawna Bell, who is now serving as interim executive director, still finds amazing.
"His relationships with people have been such an integral part of building the Cheer Board to what it is today," Bell says. "Whether that be walking up to somebody who owns a forklift rental company and saying, 'Hey, we need a forklift for six weeks,' and being able to get it, or getting a 50,000 square-foot space for next to nothing.
"It’s fantastic," she adds. "Who could say no this man?"
And he had a warm welcome, too, for all of the thousands of volunteers, from schoolkids to seniors, who each year turned out to help. When Bell first started volunteering at the Cheer Board about 20 years ago, she stood in awe of how Madsen seemed to make every helper feel special, integral to the effort.
"I just remember thinking, he is who Christmas is in this city," she says.
In recent years, with Madsen's health declining, he worked closely with the board to prepare for the transition. Just this week, he's been walking Bell through his mental lists of who she needs to contact for various things. Each contact, Bell says with a laugh, comes with a fascinating story about their history of helping out.
None of this makes it easier to lose him in the gig. But just like Madsen says, the work will go on.
"The Cheer Board grows on you. It kind of takes over your life." – Kai Madsen
"Those folks have done such an amazing job getting the right people at the right time, and that’s made this transition a little easier," Bell says.
"It’s still a shock for a lot of people. Even after 52 years, the fella seems quite immortal.... But he’s ready, and that makes us ready."
Over more than a half-century, Madsen has learned a lot about Winnipeg, he says. He's seen the best of people, and the worst, and found that when you expect the best you usually get it. That's one thing he learned. Another is that, through it all, the community the Cheer Board served was always ready to give back.
"Winnipeg is a fantastic big town with a big heart," he says. "So big that nobody can count it. It’s an amazing place, and it’s not just the Cheer Board that can say this. When we have floods, when we have emergencies, a whole range of (helping) things that take place. They take place because we’re Winnipeg."
And he's proud, he says, of the legacy he's leaving to the city. There are a few things he might have done differently now if given the chance, he adds, but when he looks at the whole of the last five decades, he's deeply proud of what they built together. He plans to help, in whatever way he can.
"It’s been a wonderful travel," he says. "And I hope it’s not quite over yet."
One last note: the Cheer Board, which has always been relatively nomadic, is looking for a new warehouse home for the upcoming holiday season, ideally a space of at least 30,000 to 50,000 square feet. Bell encourages folks to contact her with any leads.
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.