Team Canada soccer player, storyteller, great-grandfather, whistler. Born May 2, 1925, in Peremyshl, Poland, died Sept. 1, 2013, in Toronto of natural causes, aged 88.
“I jumped up to head the ball. He jumped up to defend. We hit heads, and I spent the next few minutes spitting out most of my teeth!”
This was one of the many stories Walter repeated, and one of the many that his wife, Paula, corrected. While Walter may or may not have lost his front teeth on a soccer play, the beautiful game opened doors for him.
When he was a refugee in post-war Germany, his soccer prowess caught Paula’s eye. She watched his game, and the rest was history. They had two kids in Germany, then two more in Canada.
Walter’s onfield skills led Team Ukraine to soccer gold over other nationalities in a displaced persons camp in postwar Germany. That led to his signing with a German semi-pro team in the highest league that then existed. If he had been born today, Paula says, he might have made a million in the Bundesliga.
While Walter’s two sisters immigrated to the United States, he was recruited by a team in Toronto. Games took him across the eastern seaboard, and he became famous for his headers, his friendly personality and, according to his contemporaries, for a bicycle-kick goal in one particular game.
Walter represented Canada at the qualifying rounds for the 1958 World Cup, playing two games in Mexico, beating the U.S. but losing to the hosts. He recalled later that the Mexico match was the highest-calibre game he had ever played. He became so famous among émigrés and others that when his grandson visited a Ukrainian sports bar in New York 60 years later, elderly men hobbled over to shake his hand and tell him what a star Walter was.
When he wasn’t playing, he gave much of his time to a steel company in southwest Ontario that helped build the Twin Towers in New York.
Walter and Paula had five grandsons, two of whom they raised when their eldest daughter, Katrusia, succumbed to cancer. They were proud Ukrainians and shared beautiful folk songs and traditions over the years. Even in his later years, Walter often whistled or broke into song.
He loved making his young grandsons smile, and gave them quarters for bringing him beer from the basement fridge. Later in life, he would often sneak sips from a bottle he would nurse behind the couch when his wife wasn’t looking.
He loved house guests. I was always greeted with kisses and a sparkle in his eye, even after a stroke caused him to forget who I was. When we brought his great-grandson over, he loved seeing him, even though he couldn’t comprehend his relationship to him.
Walter died peacefully with family surrounding him. His stories, humour and whistling will be missed by those who loved him.
Jamie Liew is Walter’s granddaughter-in-law.