In his last days, Dr. Barry Kay, a long-time political science professor at Wilfrid Laurier University known for his self-deprecating wit, accurate projections in elections and a thick mustache, did not spend time feeling sorry for himself. Instead, he focused on starting two scholarship funds at the school, one named for his late parents and the other for Sherry Palmer, the department’s chief administrator – just because he knew he would not be around to help celebrate her retirement next year.
“That was who he was,” department chair Patricia Goff said. “That’s where his mind went. He was so generous, all the time.”
Dr. Kay, who died on Dec. 13 at the age of 73 after a brief battle with an aggressive disease, was a statistician who preferred taking a low-tech approach, using a pen, paper, calculator and a deep knowledge of history and trends. Darrell Bricker, a former student who would go on to become the CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs, recalled appearing with the professor on a panel at the university’s Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy, or LISPOP.
“I get up and give a really slick PowerPoint presentation and then Barry stands up, says ‘That is very interesting,’ and proceeds to give a compelling talk with notes written on a piece of paper,” Mr. Bricker said. “He was the first person to show me the ‘science’ part of social science, that there was another way to make an assessment of something – that you could conclude arguments statistically and bloodlessly.”
To Dr. Kay, although politics was a passion, he avoided heated arguments in favour of reasoned debate, often taking part in what Mr. Bricker described as the “world’s longest conversations.”
The Ipsos chair last saw his friend and former professor on Oct. 21, the night of the federal election that saw Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government reduced to a minority. (Dr. Kay projected that the election would result in a minority government, but he was cautious enough not speculate as to which party would come out on top.)
“We were at Global News and it was wonderful because we’ve hired a lot of his students at Ipsos and on that night, he had a team doing the vote count and I was the pollster,” Mr. Bricker said. “We were all there because of Barry.”
Dr. Kay took great delight in this legacy, proudly attending get-togethers held in his honour every couple of years by his former students now working at Ipsos.
Said Mr. Bricker: “Barry being Barry, he celebrated us right back, always.”
Barry Kay was born in Toronto on Nov. 4, 1946, the only child of Harry and Lillian Kay. His father taught at Upper Canada College while his mother owned a children’s clothing store; he was a latchkey kid before the term ever came into vogue, independent and curious, with a love of history and a knack for numbers.
The son attended UCC while his father taught there, and went on to do his BA at McMaster University, his master’s at the University of Pennsylvania and his PhD at the University of Rochester. Before landing in the political science department at Wilfrid Laurier in 1978, he taught at the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Windsor.
His research interests included public opinion and elections, the politics of policy-making, both Canadian and American politics and research methodologies. Mr. Bricker took his first-ever statistics course from Dr. Kay; although he garnered only a C+, it sparked something in him and set him on his career path.
An author or co-author of more than 40 academic articles and scholarly book chapters, Dr. Kay also wrote hundreds of op-eds for newspapers, including his local Kitchener-Waterloo Record, the Toronto Star and the Ottawa Citizen. When it came to elections, he appeared on Global TV broadcasts for no less than 12 national, provincial and municipal elections since 2004, a reasoned, calm commentator who always stressed that he produced projections, not predictions. There was no crystal ball, he was wont to say, while projections were only as good as the poll numbers on which they were based.
He created a widely consulted model to project seat distribution in elections that was based on previous vote counts and polling data. Part of his model’s simple brilliance was that it factored in all the parties, rather than just the two main ones.
Along the way, Dr. Kay married the love of his life, Betty Leventhal, a chemist he met while playing Trivial Pursuit with friends at a resort in Northern Ontario. Every time a science question came up, he was impressed that she had the answer; although they never had children of their own, they were close to their extended families, to cousins and nieces and nephews.
In 2016, Dr. Kay was named a “Legend of Laurier,” part of a series organized by university alumni in which beloved retired or long-standing professors are asked to deliver a public lecture during homecoming about their fields. His lecture marked the half-century anniversary of the political science department he had taught in for 40 years.
In addition to being a “Legend,” in the past few years he was the political science department’s Secret Santa, anonymously footing the bill for its annual holiday staff lunch.
“He didn’t need to take credit,” Dr. Goff said. “You know, academics can be quirky and university departments aren’t always collegial. But it was like that – because of Barry. There was an ebullience in his manner. He just radiated goodness. He loved what he did for a living, adored his wife and he had a happy life.
“I think he shared that with us all.”
Dr. Kay leaves his wife, Ms. Leventhal.