This is the story of the most important phone call I have ever made. The year was 1971. We had been building a national student debating program for about 5 years, and were planning for the first full scale National Student Debating Seminar to be held in Edmonton. The issue of the weeklong Seminar was to be The Free Market vs The Planned Economy, and we wanted a formal adult debate to kick it off. I had had no trouble dragooning prominent advocates for The Planned Economy, but could not, for the life of me, find a business leader willing to take part. Someone mentioned the name of a Toronto businessman who he thought might be willing to do it. His name was Willis McLeese.
I got his number, picked up a phone, and called him. I told him who I was, and what we were trying to do. "I'm asking you", I said, "to fly to Edmonton at your own expense .... (We have no money)....and to debate on behalf of the Free Market in an open public broadcast debate in front of 70 brilliant teenagers from every corner of the country". And then I played my ace card: "You'll do it", I said, "if you love kids".
Well, he took the bait! That was a debate I would never forget, a superb example of civilized disagreement between highly informed advocates of diametrically opposed views. There were still a dozen kids with questions at the mikes an hour after it was supposed to end!
On the way to the airport he asked me what he could do for us. I answered "We need a Treasurer". "You've got one", he said.
Well, for the next dozen years, Willis McLeese's superbly staffed and equipped office in downtown Toronto was at our disposal. We were, after all, a bunch of high school teachers with very limited business sense or skill. Our rapid growth was a recipe for collapse. With infinite patience, he taught us how to conduct an Annual General Meeting, how to keep minutes, how to incorporate, how to raise funds. Over those years he personally raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for us, and whenever we were backs to the wall, he came through with five or ten thousand dollars to keep us afloat. He attended, in person, Seminar after Seminar in every corner of the country, steering us through one crisis after another, enabling us to reconcile as many conflicting agendas as there are provinces. Finally he established a two million dollar foundation to provide us with a permanent staffed national office.
Over the years, countless thousands of great young Canadians have participated informal, structured debate at both junior and senior levels in district, provincial, national, North American, and world competition, learning the basic skills desperately needed for effective citizenship in a democratic society: integrity in research, articulate persuasive speech, acute listening powers, open mindedness, and a keen interest in issues of common concern to all Canadians. I believe we have made a significant contribution to the quality of publlc life in Canada. I also believe none of this would have come about but for the never failing generosity, knowledge, infinite patience, and buoyant good humour of this remarkable man. I consider it one of the greatest privileges of my life to have known, as a mentor and friend, a great Canadian.
I shall not see his like again.