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Canada Improv Games co-founder Willie Wyllie a champion for teens

Jamie Wyllie, a busy lawyer, earned a PhD in theology on the side.

More than 100,000 Canadian teenagers have played the Canadian Improv Games since they were co-founded in 1977 by Jamie Wyllie. This improvisational acting competition, which runs across the country and culminates in national finals in Ottawa, has been a life-changing experience for many of its participants, helping them find their voices.

Many of those participants met Mr. Wyllie – better known by his nickname Willie – in the improv world. This tall "bear of a man" was gifted at improv himself (he often played the straight guy) and was a strict but sensitive director. Most important, he cared about the teens who went through the program. "He would listen to you – like, really listen to you – so he could better understand you and offer advice," recalls Terry McGurrin, a writer and actor who played the games and performed skit comedies as a teen under Mr. Wyllie's direction.

Canadian Improv Games grads who never met Mr. Wyllie felt his influence too. He wrote the opening oath (which includes the phrase "loving competition" and ends with "have fun"), and worked hard for 37 year to be sure those ideals remained part of the competition.

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Behind the scenes, this hard-working lawyer also funded the games for much of their existence. When he did not pay bills himself, he made contacts with donors and sponsors from his wide array of contacts in the Ottawa area to ensure the non-profit would stay afloat.

He oversaw the books, did any contractual and legal work and guided the organization as chair of the board of directors.

He fit in time for the games around a very successful career as a lawyer. He was also a devoted member of his church and did a master's and PhD in theology on the side by correspondence.

Despite struggling with illness for the past decade and a half, he was an engaged dad of three teenagers. He died on Oct. 2 of complications from leukemia at just 56.

Jamie Lorne Wyllie was born in Regina on May 22, 1958. His father, James Wyllie – a Second World War veteran who lost an arm in battle – worked in various high-profile jobs related to veterans' affairs and the labour movement. As vice-president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, he moved his family to Ottawa in 1964. Four years later, the Wyllies decided to separate. His only sibling, sister Bonnie, who was 12 years his senior, flew home to help tell her 10-year-old brother the news. "I'm going to be a lawyer," he told her. He then lived with his mother, Marjorie (née Brearley), and his beloved aunt Florence.

As a child, he was curious about everything. Bonnie came home once and taught him chess and he proceeded to win a major championship – but then stopped playing the game as he moved on to other interests.

As a teenager, he started doing improv and immediately loved it. He was introduced to the craft by actor Howard Jerome, who moved to Ottawa from New York City to do some TV work and improv. He was running a workshop for high school teachers on the Improv Olympics, a series of improv games invented by his colleague David Shepherd. In walked a ragged group of teenagers dressed in togas. "They were brave and funny and well meaning and they won my heart," Mr. Jerome recalls. One of them was Mr. Wyllie. The two developed a father-son relationship. While Mr. Wyllie formed the improv troupe Stage Fright, the two friends began modifying the Improv Olympics to suit Canadian teenagers.

In 1977, when Mr. Wyllie was just 19 years old and enrolled in the commerce program at Carleton University, the two founded the Canadian Improv Games. It started with a few high school teams in the Ottawa area and gradually grew. In 1988, the National Arts Council partnered with the group and it became national.

By that time, Mr. Wyllie had competed a master's and a law degree and was working at an Ottawa law firm. Despite putting in long hours on the job, he continued to volunteer with the games. He also taught part time at Carleton, and did so for 15 years.

It was there he met his future wife, Sandra Gorrill, who was a student in one of his classes. The two started dating after the class ended, and they married in 1993.

The couple had two children, Bethany and Benjamin, when Mr. Wyllie developed a lung infection in 1999 and was placed in a medically induced coma. Doctors were not sure he would survive. Meanwhile, Sandra discovered she was pregnant with their third child. He woke up after three months but suffered ongoing health programs for the next several years, and was diagnosed with leukemia six years ago.

Michael Golding, a long-time friend who also helped in the early days of the games, marvels at Mr. Wyllie's dedication to his career and his passions, even while ill. "It was amazing how he kept going. He'd be lying in his bed with his iPad and still barking out orders." His friends – he seemed to make the kind you keep for life – still don't understand how he could have juggled his career, volunteer work, teaching and still complete both a master's and PhD in theology.

Ron Prehogan, who worked with Mr. Wyllie for his entire law career, and was a partner alongside him at the firm BrazeauSeller, thinks he was able to accomplish so much because he never wasted time or did mindless things, and was incredibly organized. "His desk was the envy of every other lawyer in the office. He only had on it the file he was working on at the time."

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As a lawyer, he was always completely prepared for every case, and could be quite aggressive when he needed to. (Apparently he was pretty aggressive behind the wheel as well.) While understated in much of his life, he would often promise to "crush" the opposition in a case, Mr. Prehogan recalls.

He did corporate cases, labour law and early in his career found a niche doing copyright law for technology companies during the 1990s tech boom.

He always liked technology, and always had confidence. As an articling student, he convinced his firm to get rid of its old typewriters and buy its first computers.

"It didn't matter if it was a social situation or a hearing or boardroom halfway around the world, he was totally comfortable with himself," Mr. Prehogan says.

Similarly, Mr. Golding recalls the two of them coming across a bunch of large, rough-looking characters at a motel in the U.S. Mr. Wyllie noticed one of them was wearing a union pin, and struck up a conversation and they ended up having coffee together.

This relaxed confidence was combined with an ability to work with others in a unique way: When Mr. Wyllie was involved in a project, he'd get things going, then step back.

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He did this with the 2011 documentary David Shepherd: A Life in Improvisational Theatre. Mr. Golding starting working on what was to be a podcast, with Mr. Wyllie as executive director, and it snowballed into a 90-minute film. "He never said no. He just stepped away and said, 'Go do it.'"

Likewise, he spent much of his life working to promote and keep alive the Canadian Improv Games, yet was generous about letting others take leadership roles. "He was always careful to allow us to have that sense of ownership over the games," says president and artistic director Al Connors. "He never wanted to overly exercise that authority he had; he wanted us to figure things out on our own."

Mr. Wyllie leaves his wife, Sandra; children, Bethany, Benjamin and Joel; and his sister Bonnie and her family.

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