Graeme Kelly: Contractor. Athlete. Dad. Protector. Born March 2, 1963, in Toronto; died Dec. 28, 2022, in Toronto, of cancer, aged 59.
Graeme Kelly had a habit of standing up just because it was the right thing to do. He earned a reputation for shutting down bullies as a teen. Graeme genuinely didn’t get why anyone would target anybody else, and he knew personally that a learning disability could be a trial, but it didn’t define anyone. A few beers in, Graeme would reminisce about idyllic days growing up in Moore Park, a stylish neighbourhood of Toronto, and summers spent on Big Rideau Lake in eastern Ontario. They were funny tales of teenage hijinks for the football hero, daredevil skier and tennis star. None of this sounded like a brag. He readily admitted he was a hack on the golf course.
Graeme was in Grade 8 when he overheard a primary student being called stupid for having difficulty reading. He told the bully, “I’m dyslexic, do you think I’m stupid?” That ended it. In high school, a new student was shunned at lunch because of a physical disability. Graeme asked him to sit with him and the football team, not just that day but every day after. Graeme counted that man among his friends to the end.
His paternal streak was evident early on with his little sister Wendy. Ten years his junior, she could do no wrong. With Stephanie, his sister less than a year older, he was as thick as thieves – except maybe on a ski hill where competitiveness could get the better of them both. Graeme attended Concordia University, but he knew he wasn’t built for office life or working for someone else. He had spent his summers painting and doing restoration work. He turned that into a side hustle at university and it quickly morphed into a full-time business. This was his calling. For an apparently easy-going guy, he was a closet perfectionist, led by the dual mantras – do it right the first time and do the hardest thing first. He left university and didn’t look back. He never did acclimate to paperwork though, which suited his clients who knew the work would be finished long before they ever got a bill.
Graeme’s precision craftsmanship and easy charm landed him a TV contractor gig on HGTV Canada. He was featured on Home Heist (with famed Scottish designers Colin McAllister and Justin Ryan). He was often filmed working intently into the wee hours and keeping a calm head while those around him lost theirs. His creativity often saved the day on the show.
Graeme was also a single dad to Chelsea, who he raised with the help of his mum, Sally. Fatherhood grounded him, he said, but that didn’t mean he didn’t enjoy going on the occasional tear. Cue his devilish wink.
Graeme took most challenges in stride. He thought it useless to dwell on hardships when life was so sweet. The only things he didn’t handle well, as he’d be the first to tell you, were braggarts, bullies and BS. Graeme could be stubborn. He wouldn’t work for anyone he considered a jerk, no matter how big the payday. When he formed an opinion, good luck to anyone trying to change it. He also had an annoying habit of landing himself in the ER when he’d forget he was not 18 and invincible, which he did regularly.
Graeme valued his independence like he did his obligations. He was old school. A man of his word. He loved shmaltzy movies and just hanging out with friends. He could’ve had glitz and glam, but that wasn’t his style. He was wary of too much flash and not enough substance.
Graeme died in the Toronto home he built himself. His mother and family were by his side. His last words were typical of the man: “I’ve had an amazing life.”
Mary McGugan is Graeme Kelly’s friend and reno buddy.
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