Tuesday, March 15, 2011

While I Breathe, I Hope

“While I breathe, I hope.”

-Willis S. McLeese, 1913-2011

On January 5, 2011, Upper Canada College bid farewell to one of the school’s most extraordinary friends. In the 98th year of his remarkable life, Willis McLeese passed away.

From his World War II service in the Navy, to his legendary and lucrative careers in refrigeration and power, to the resort community he built at Cobble Beach, Ontario, Mr. McLeese made the most of every moment.

Along the way, he developed a myriad of skills, including thermodynamics and time management (a must, for someone who ran several companies). But of all the lessons Mr. McLeese gleaned from his decades of achievement, none was more pronounced than this: The power to persuade is essential to success.

His philanthropic efforts were vast and various, from giving financial aid for less-privileged students to attend UCC, to providing the opportunity for physically challenged youth to experience horseback riding through the Georgian Riding Association for Challenged Equestrians (GRACE) in Owen Sound. But the cause to which Mr. McLeese was most devoted was helping young people learn the craft of persuasive speaking. He donated time, money, and energy to this effort for 40 years, particularly in support of UCC and the Canadian Student Debating Federation (CSDF). He endowed the Willis S. McLeese Chair in Canadian Debating, based at UCC and working with the CSDF, to bring young people across the country into this activity. The program is outlined at mcleesedebate.com.

Mr. McLeese believed that students who develop the skills and confidence to speak publicly and advocate positions are well equipped for the contest of life. As someone who prevailed resoundingly in that contest, Mr. McLeese knew of whence he spoke. CSDF Founder Tom Lawson recounts how, in 1971, he telephoned Mr. McLeese, whom he did not know, and asked him to fly to Edmonton to debate the merits of the free market in an open public broadcast in front of 70 teenagers from every corner of Canada: “You’ll do it,” Lawson told him, “if you love kids.”

Not only did Mr. McLeese accept the invitation and bring the house down with his performance, but he signed on as Treasurer of the nascent coalition that became today’s CSDF. Lawson discusses how Mr. McLeese’s commitment and business acumen proved invaluable: “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 our backs were to the wall, he came through with five or ten thousand dollars to keep us afloat.”

As a result of Mr. McLeese’s support, says Lawson, “Countless thousands of great young Canadians have participated in formal, 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…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.”

Indeed, Mr. McLeese considered listening skills and keeping an open mind to be indispensible components of the power to persuade. To wit, debating is not just about saying what you think; it requires hearing what other people are telling you. Consequently, Mr. McLeese insisted that student debaters argue every resolution from both sides, believing this would teach young people respect and tolerance for each other.

“Debating is a way to extend your influence,” he was fond of saying, often adding, “Canada will always need great leaders.” He understood and evinced that being a leader does not require your name on a ballot. Leaders come in all sorts, in every profession. What they share is the power to convince and inspire.

Drawing upon his wealth of experience, Mr. McLeese knew that whatever future careers students might pursue, someday they would have to answer questions like: What makes you different? Why should we do it your way? Why should I buy what you are offering? So much of life, and success, is about selling ideas. From Clarence Darrow to Don Cherry, if you can make a case, you can make a living. For Mr. McLeese, teaching young people this craft was practical education at its best.

It was a supreme and undeserved compliment when Mr. McLeese asked me to take up the Chair that bears his name. Working with, and learning from, a man of his character and stature was one of the great privileges of my life. Together, we were able to bring students from UCC and across Canada to the famed Munk Debates in Toronto, introducing them to luminaries, getting them newspaper coverage, and making it possible for them to debate live on the radio. We facilitated tournaments and workshops for hundreds of students from every background, as well as tutorials for teachers and coaches, enabling schools to create and develop their own debating programs.

Beginning in 2011, the McLeese Prize in Debating will be presented to the graduating UCC student who best exemplifies Mr. McLeese’s ideals of skill in the activity, tolerance and leadership. He was particularly enthusiastic about our latest venture, the McLeese Online Debating program. Hosted by mcleesedebate.com, this unique function will allow any student with web access to participate in teacher-moderated debates from anywhere in Canada. This undertaking appealed to Mr. McLeese straight away, as he understood that many schools and regions lack the funds or the infrastructure to allow kids to participate in debating.

Mr. McLeese knew he was a blessed man, and nothing made him happier than to share his good fortune. Even in his final months, when he could not attend debating events as often as he would like, he never lost his enthusiasm for helping young people. I will always remember the light in his face, or the joy in his voice on the telephone, when I would tell him of some opportunity or success enjoyed by the students he helped and cherished. With a masterful mind and a servant’s heart, he was a remarkable patron of the art of argument.

His copious experiences were animated by his personal motto, “Dum Spiro, Spero” – Latin for, “While I breathe, I hope.” The McLeese Debating crest, which combines the McLeese family coat of arms with symbols of UCC and the CSDF, bears these words. By his example, and through his tremendous generosity, Willis McLeese offered hope to countless young Canadians. What a magnificent legacy he leaves.
Theo Caldwell is the McLeese Chair in Debating.

Theo Caldwell is the McLeese Chair in Debating.