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Funeral for Milan Ilich draws crowd of 1,000

People gather at Richmond Funeral Home Friday for Milan Ilich
People gather at Richmond Funeral Home Friday for Milan Ilich's memorial service.
— image credit: Martin van den Hemel

Nearly 1,000 people gathered at Richmond Funeral Home Friday afternoon to celebrate the life of Milan Ilich.

Hundreds of friends, family, business associates and politicians crowded into the Cambie Road chapel and reception rooms, with at least another 100 watching by video monitor outside.

The sombre service began to the song "Ava Maria" before speakers stirred memories of the legacy of a developer, philanthropist and above all, speakers said, a man whose family came first.

Ilich, president and owner of Progressive Construction, died June 29 after a 14-month battle with acute myeloid leukemia. He was 76.

Offering tributes were his son Rick Ilich, business associates and friends Joseph Segal and Michael Audain and former premier Gordon Campbell.

The crowd heard of how a boy of modest origins grew up in Richmond and created jobs and opportunities for others through community building and philanthropy.

"He was a citizen. He was someone who recognized throughout his life that where he lived and what he did made a difference in other people's lives," said Campbell. "He was someone who understood that what you did for others was more important than what you did for yourself."

Born in a small mining town in northern B.C., Ilich's family relocated to Richmond when he was young. His upbringing was more of poverty than wealth. The home where he grew up didn't have a have hot running water, and family members shared bath water.

In that upbringing Ilich learned how to work, and to work hard. By the time he reached high school, Ilich had a drive to succeed.

At age 20, he married Maureen. Soon after, his children, Rick and Laurie, were born. Family would remain important to Ilich throughout his life.

Eventually he launched his building career, forming the Progressive group—a company that would build much of Richmond and Metro Vancouver.

His wife didn't speak at Friday's service, but shared an emotional letter to her late husband in the program.

"Life goes on, I know it's true," wrote Maureen. "But it won't be the same now I've lost you. Your beautiful memories I will treasure forever. Of the happy days when we were together."

Memorial service programIn a speech that lasted over a half-hour, son Rick revealed the person behind his dad.

Ilich's newspaper of choice was The National Enquirer. He was a sports nut who couldn't keep a secret and liked bologna sandwiches made with white bread.

He collected things in the likeness of frogs, and on Sunday he'd wash his cars—believing people shouldn't own vehicles if they didn't make an effort to wash them.

"He absolutely emphatically loved Lulu Island and the people of it," said Rick.

Developer Joseph Segal knew Ilich for a quarter-century. He said Ilich called it as he saw it, but he had compassion and believed what counted in life was what he did with his money—not how much he had.

"In business over so many years, I've never experienced a relationship or an association of partnership as I did with Milan. There may have been a difference of opinion, but there was never an argument. I miss Milan."

Segal spoke of his friend's philanthropy, reflecting on one fundraiser where Segal expected Ilich to contribute $100,000. Ilich gave $200,000 instead.

"Maureen said it wasn't enough," said Segal, remembering Ilich's words.

When Ilich fell ill, Segal was depressed, recovering in hospital from a stroke. But Ilich—despite his own illness—came by to cheer him up.

"This guy, that had a sentence, if you want to call it such, had the courage to say to me, 'Don't worry. You're going to be OK.' He never worried about himself; he worried about others."

Ilich liked to refer to himself as "just a regular working guy," said fellow developer Michael Audain of Polygon Homes. But Audain said his friend "wasn't completely humble," saying he was once invited over to Ilich's No. 3 Road house for tea.

Ilich sent a helicopter.

Audain also noted Ilich's philanthropy, including toward politicians. Anyone who opened themselves up to public scrutiny and sacrificed earning potential needed  support to retain a free society, Ilich believed.

Said Audain: "It was a privilege to know a man who did so much to make the world a better place."Milan Ilich funeral program

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