A Life's Story

December 24, 2021

Santa’s biggest helper

Kai Madsen gave hope to countless families at Christmas, spread joy all year long

By: Janine LeGal

If you look up Christmas spirit in the dictionary, words and phrases like joyful, generous, being kind to others, and helping people in need are highlighted. Kai Madsen is synonymous with all of those things, so it’s not surprising that for 52 years he was the heart of the Christmas Cheer Board and the magic behind the season.

“He brought holiday cheer to thousands of Winnipeg’s most in need families, joy to countless children, and tears of gratitude to thousands of parents and caregivers,” says Rennie Zegalski, chairperson of the Winnipeg Parade Committee, which organizes the Santa Claus Parade.

“Every decision he made was meaningful, and made with the goal of improving a family’s life, if even for just one day.”

Madsen joined the Christmas Cheer Board of Greater Winnipeg in 1969 as a volunteer, and eventually served on the board as vice-president, then president and finally as executive director. He retired in August.

After a brief battle with complications of COPD, Madsen died in October at his residence in the presence of loved ones.

He is survived by his wife of 38 years, Lisette Boies Madsen; two children, Suzanne McLellan Evans and Kevin McLellan; grandchildren, Daniel Evans, and Mathew Evans; and siblings, Michael Madsen and Anne Hamilton.

Born on Aug. 19, 1941, in Copenhagen, Denmark, Madsen immigrated to Canada with his family in 1953 and settled in Alberta, where he worked at Litton Industries. He moved to Calgary and worked at National Trust before taking a management position in Winnipeg with McBee Systems, continuing there until his retirement.

Known for his compassion, charm, and ease with people, Madsen effortlessly befriended volunteers, business owners, media personnel and public figures. In his earlier years, Madsen was an avid horseman, curler, and golfer, and more recently, a glider pilot at the Winnipeg Gliding Club. He was a member of Toastmasters International and an active member of veteran organizations ANAVET #283 and #1. He was also an honoured recipient of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee medal for outstanding and exemplary work in the community.

Chris Beaumont-Smith met Madsen when they worked in the same building, and they quickly became friends.

“Kai was a spectacular listener, a quality I think is far too often overlooked in this age of technology and I believe that this led to Kai’s tremendous ability to connect with people,” Beaumont-Smith says.

“Kai demonstrated empathy for his fellow citizens. Beyond the Christmas season, Kai maintained a drive to provide the best Christmas he could manage through the vehicle of the Christmas Cheer Board for its clients, always trying to maximize its resources to provide for those less fortunate.”

Bob Martin, one of Madsen’s closest friends, has countless memories of their friendship, at the forefront, remembering a kind and gentle man who would sooner hear of another person’s accomplishments or problems than disclose his own.

“It was probably this quality of his that made him so popular and approachable to so many,” says Martin. “On more than one occasion, a stranger would approach, shake his hand and begin a conversation that would last several minutes.

“On retreat, he would disclose to me that he didn’t have a clue who that particular individual was, but thought they were nice. Kai simply had an aura that made everyone comfortable around him and that there were no strangers. If you ever had the pleasure of meeting Kai, you knew you had a friend for life, even if he forgot your name.”

With a shared interest in aviation, Martin and Madsen signed up for ground school and completed training together at the gliding club.

“We passed the Transport Canada pilot’s exam and proceeded to do our solo flights, after which we both became active members, eventually even becoming part owners of our own private gliders.”

Suzanne McLellan Evans says her dad was a mighty man in a small frame with a soothing voice who taught her to always look for the good, be it in people or situations.

“He truly believed there was some in everyone, and would say ‘I’ve seen the best of everybody and when you think well of people, good things happen,’” says McLellan Evans.

“One of the first lessons he taught me was you never know what someone is going through, a kind word, gesture, or just an ear to listen could make all the difference.”

Madsen married her mother in 1983.

“To get to know my brother and I better, he decided to do the things we enjoyed together,” says McLellan Evans, noting that her mother still lives in the house she and Madsen bought in 1984.

“Back then, it was roller skating and WWE wrestling. He took us to both. Can you picture Kai on roller skates? He did it. He even took us to a couple of wrestling matches. The interesting part was seeing him look so out of place, in his three-piece suit, but still connecting and speaking to so many people. That was one of his many qualities, his genuine interest in people’s stories. It didn’t matter where we were, someone always recognized him.”

She recalls Madsen as a loving father and grandfather, always building connections and relationships with family, the way he did with the community.

“He and mom took dance lessons and would come home and try to teach my brother and I the steps they had learned,” she said.

“He enjoyed reading Stephen King books out loud to us to see if we would get scared. He coached my baseball team for a couple of years as well. He adored his two grandsons. When they were little, he would spend hours driving them around on the tractor because that’s what they wanted to do. He was so very proud of them and told me daily.

“I miss his voice asking me the same thing every day, ‘are your ducks in a row?’ “Yes daddio, all my ducks are in a row.”