Husband. Father. Musician. Hockey fan. Born June 8, 1924, in Bell Island, Nfld.; died July 30, 2016, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., of acute myeloid leukemia; aged 92.
If you asked Willis what he did for a living he’d tell you, “everything.” Born to James and May McCabe, in the mining town of Bell Island, Nfld., he had two younger brothers, John and George. He lost his mother when he was 4, and his father remarried shortly thereafter. There was tension with his stepmother, however. Willis could have gone to school but the family needed him home to help out, and at 8 he was sent to work delivering eggs and firewood.
By the age of 12, he decided to go out on his own. He found work as a cook’s helper and apprentice in the interior lumber camps of Millertown Junction and Buchans, and worked his way up to head cook. He met the lovely Audrey Vincent at a cooks’ convention. Since she was working as a cook at the air-force base in Argentia on Placentia Bay, he decided to follow her there. They were married a short time later in October, 1943, when he was 18 and she 21. He often teased Audrey that she “robbed the cradle.”
When he arrived at the air-force base, he found it in disrepair. The superiors asked if anyone had carpentry experience and Willis volunteered (he had none). He soon became the official (and completely self-taught) carpenter of the base.
After starting a family, the couple moved to Cormack, staying with friends while Willis built their own house in Corner Brook. Over the years, he worked at a variety of seasonal jobs such as carpentry and as a heavy-equipment operator with the railway. Willis also fished and hunted to feed his growing family of 12 children. Willis and Audrey would lose their daughter Shirley at the age of two months to dysentery and a son, Clyde, at 21 when he drowned. Willis never really got over these losses.
Willis inherited a love of music from his mother May, and taught himself how to play the accordion, tin whistle and harmonica. He performed traditional songs at various Newfoundland venues. He even played with the legendary Newfoundland singer Harry Hibbs.
When the family moved to Ontario, Willis worked as a foreman at a large construction company involved in building bridges such as the Main Street Tunnel under the Welland Canal.
He brought Newfoundland kitchen parties to Ontario and his favourites were those with family as his audience. Unfortunately, his voice was silenced after he developed laryngeal cancer at the age of 72 and he lost his desire to play. However, he never lost his love for Newfoundland and visited several times in later years. He also never lost his sense of humour, which was legendary, and he told more than the occasional naughty joke.
Willis was always a superfan of hockey; Saturday nights were hockey nights. He followed all teams.
His later years were challenged with various illnesses and the care of his wife, Audrey, who developed dementia. He lost his beloved Audrey in 2012 after 68 years of marriage and his final years included daily visits to the cemetery to “talk to mom.”
His health declined sharply in 2016 after a cancer diagnosis. He fought until the end and passed with family at his side. Willis was not a rich man but measured his richness with a loving family: 12 children, 32 grandchildren, 55 great-grandchildren and 14 great-great-grandchildren.
Janet Traverse is his granddaughter and occasional travel companion.Report Typo/Error
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