Soldier, geologist, gardener, good neighbour. Born on June 19, 1921, in Duck Lake, Sask.; died on Feb. 1, 2015, in Calgary, of idiopathic fibrosis, aged 93.
Last fall, a few days before Remembrance Day, I dropped by for tea with Walter and his wife, Ruth. It was a busy time, Walter explained with typical boyish exuberance. He would be the special guest at two school ceremonies, and he would appear in an episode of the History documentary series, War Story. There was a new military history book to which he contributed. He shuffled to the den and returned with the book opened to the acknowledgments page.
While we talked, the phone rang. A history professor was inviting Walter to speak at a Remembrance Day ceremony in Fort Macleod, Alta. A few minutes later, a reporter called to interview him for a feature in the weekend paper. As Walter answered questions about his experience as a platoon commander during the final months of the Second World War, his expression shifted. Bright and open, a sudden scowl, then tears, and a returning lightness.
Walter’s experience as an infantry soldier haunted his adult life. Over the years, the nightmares subsided, but the memories never faded. Two decades ago, he wrote down his war stories. When he sought out his comrades from the Regina Rifles, some refused to speak about the war. But Walter was a talker. In our conversations, he never failed to mention those terrible days during the liberation of Holland.
For more than 50 years, Walter worked as a geologist in Calgary and Houston, and then as a consultant in Canada and abroad. He also shared his knowledge of carbonate sedimentology in the classroom with fellow geologists and visiting students from McGill University.
When he retired, Walter applied his scientist’s mind to the war. He filled his basement office with military books and documents. He combed through regimental records, reconstructing battles in minute detail and sending his findings to military historians across the country. During this time, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder at age 85. His military research threatened to overwhelm him, but he was determined to set the historical record straight.
After we finished our tea, Walter brought out a small, leather-framed portrait of Ruth he carried with him during the war. When he enlisted in 1942, she promised she would wait for him. Ruth was his anchor for more than 70 years and together they raised their daughters, Leslie, Jocelyn and Madelaine, and son, Donald. Over his teacup he smiled at her, eyes sparkling. “My bee-u-ti-ful Ruthie.”
I have many memories of Walter, but I will remember him best in the garden. In the years he and Ruth lived next door, he was almost always in the backyard, trudging across the lawn in heavy boots, his bright white beard catching the light. Often, his sweet tenor floated over the fence. At times, I would hear him growling instructions at one of his grandsons as he worked the vegetable plot. His tone always softened when he showed me the lilies he had planted in honour of his youngest grandchild, and prickled with pride as we toured the tomato plants he had coaxed through yet another Calgary summer.
That is how I will remember Walter Keith: making things grow as if all our lives depended on it.
Shaun Hunter is Walter’s friend.Report Typo/Error
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