Grandfather, veteran, small businessman, believer in humanity. Born on Aug. 25, 1925, in Oriv, Ukraine; died on March 15, 2014, in Burlington, Ont., of cancer, aged 88.
“Your hand is warm,” Basil Holysh said from his hospice bed as his son, Steven, touched his hand.
With his own hands, Basil had built a life that enriched his family, his community, his friends, even strangers. He was devoted to recognizing and encouraging the good in others. “He works hard,” he would say, or, “She is a good woman.” He once rewarded a homeless man for his honesty; when the man said he wanted to buy wine, Basil handed him a $10 bill.
Basil was the youngest of four children and left his family at the age of 16 to bear arms for Ukraine, which was then part of the Soviet Union. Like many Ukrainian nationalists, he fought on the side of Germany against the Soviets. At war’s end, he turned himself over to British authorities and was held in two camps, first in Italy and then in Britain, where he was treated as a displaced person and provided with work.
In 1951, he immigrated to Canada to work in the lumber camps and mines of Northern Ontario.
Seven years later, in 1958, he married Annie (Nan) Cullen, a Glasgow native, whom he had met at Toronto’s Palais Royale Ballroom. They settled in the nearby High Park neighbourhood, where they would raise five children: Victor, Martin, Steven, Linda and Philip.
By the time he married, Basil had started his own business, Royal Beverage and Food, which supplied sunflower and pumpkin seeds and popcorn to local stores. He used his hands – and sometimes those of his wife and children – to roast, pop, bag, market and deliver his products for more than 30 years, driving around in a series of blue Pontiac station wagons (which he sometimes painted with a roller).
After retirement, Basil and Nan travelled often to visit their children and 10 grandchildren as they established their families and careers in far-flung places such as England, New Zealand, Minnesota, Alberta and British Columbia. He would arrive with his signature gift of dark chocolate, and return home with praise and appreciation for his offspring and their communities.
Basil addressed serious challenges in his life with confident leadership and at times simple acceptance. In 2009, he and Nan moved to an assisted-living community in Burlington, Ont., as the fog of Alzheimer’s disease began to engulf Nan. Later that year, their son Philip died by suicide. At the memorial services, Basil – as was typical of this respectful man – made a point of thanking his son’s friends and colleagues.
At the pub after Basil’s own memorial service, glasses were raised and hugs were exchanged in celebration of a man who left this life confident that the world was safely in the hands of others.
John Jansen is a long-time friend of Basil and his family.