Devoted and proud husband and father, umpire, referee, labour negotiator, liver transplant recipient. Born May 15, 1948, in Toronto. Died Dec. 22, 2011, in Ottawa of complications from pneumonia, aged 63.
Whether behind the plate at baseball games or in chilly hockey rinks, Keith Willis was a fair and beloved umpire and referee. With his even-handed and humorous approach, he guided thousands of boys and girls in the joys of playing sports. The ball diamonds and rinks of Ottawa and Eastern Ontario were his second home.
Born in Toronto to Bernice and Merv Willis, Keith was the eldest of three children. In his early days playing hockey, he wore tuques knitted by a friend’s mother and magazines inside his pant legs for protection at the outdoor rink. His lifelong love of sports was born. Playing tyke hockey, Keith was voted most valuable player on his first team.
He attended York University but was often on the train to Kingston to visit Jan Matsui, who was studying at Queen’s University. Despite his commitment to his new bride, Keith didn’t miss the 1972 Canada-Russia hockey series while on their honeymoon in Quebec City.
They settled in Ottawa, and their roots grew deep over the years as they raised four sons: Scott, Todd, Drew and Brett. Keith and Jan considered the time and effort put into the boys’ sports and school activities just part of being parents.
While continuing to referee and umpire, Keith took on administrative duties. He was president and referee-in-chief for the Ottawa Centre Minor Hockey Association and umpire-in-chief for Glebe Little League, with responsibility for training and developing junior umpires and referees.
Keith’s day job was as a labour negotiator for various federal government departments. His colleagues remember him as a person with a warm heart and gentle spirit, but he was no pushover. Keith knew the labour-relations business well, mentored many recruits over the years and maintained excellent relations with his union contacts. He frequently shared touching, often funny, stories about his children and much-treasured wife.
In 2006, Keith’s 22-year-old son Drew gave him a second chance at life thanks to a liver transplant at Toronto General Hospital. Both recovered from the surgery, with Keith receiving excellent follow-up care. His liver was functioning well at the time of his passing.
During his active life on the rinks and fields and after the surgery, Keith was a frequent spectator at his sons’ games. His impact on the community could be seen in those who visited the funeral home. They came by the hundreds – former players, now all grown-up, parents, neighbours, sports and business colleagues.
For the many people Keith touched personally and professionally, he will remain in their hearts an all-round great guy and a most valuable player.
By Peggi McNeil and Lynda Rivington, whose sons’ lives were enriched by Keith’s contributions.