O Captain, My Captain!

Ray Keery set the course for my life’s direction.

Such a defining statement is by no means a random choice of words. I have carried Ray Keery in my heart since I was 14 years old. There is no other influence more deserving of such profound credit. He is the kindest man I have ever known… also the humblest man I have ever known. That’s why I am always compelled to tell my Ray Keery story.

Some people will say that Ray Keery founded Skills Canada but I say that Ray Keery is Skills Canada. He exemplified Skills Canada’s core foundation of leadership. Skills Canada is now a national organization, and Ray Keery is a national treasure in the grassroots promotion of what this country needs the most – an education system that invests in skilled trades and student leadership experiences.

It has been 30 years since my time in shop classes but delivering this kind of big picture education message feels totally natural for me. Ray’s passion for vocational advocacy was contagious, and his Skills Canada team members always tried to channel his wise words and echo his heartfelt belief. Even during his celebration of life, Ray would appreciate that we are jumping up on his soapbox.

However, no one could ever communicate the importance of technical education, personal leadership development and school board and industry partnerships better than Ray Keery. His crusade to promote the Skills Canada and Vocational Industrial Clubs of America (VICA) model was like his very own oxygen. His energy was refueled everyday on his relentless passion for his students and education. When Ray Keery came to a meeting to speak about his ideas to give kids a chance in the skilled trades, people were in store for a visionary awaking. He did more than push for a program to support students and education, he lived it.

In the years between Grade 9 and Grade 13 (yes, I too, did a high school victory lap), there was no one that I spent more hours with than Ray Keery. We were inseparable because he never stopped opening new doors that took the ODCVI Skills Canada team places together – places like Ohio State Skills Olympics, Ohio State VICA Summer Camps, as well as US VICA Skills Competitions in Louisville, Kentucky. Meanwhile, closer to home, my high school travel schedule was like a professional job. Weekends, evenings and lunch hours spent preparing for competitions and awards nights, speaking at local schools and school boards, industry associations and local service clubs, travelling to Skills Canada provincial events and building team based obstacle courses and delivering leadership programs in Haliburton Forest Wildlife Reserve.

Many people do not know that Ray Keery was part of my life beyond the scope of Skills Canada. We ran the roads around Lake Simcoe together when he was involved in the bait fish industry. He brought me into his important friendship with Ohio State VICA Director, Jeff Merickel who also became a great friend and another important role model in my life. I was proudly there, along with some other ODCVI classmates, to surprise Ray during a special reception at his Masonic Lodge. Ray and I even shared the Orillia Opera House stage in a production of West Side Story. He played a powerfully convincing Officer Krupke!

Sharing some of my history with this incredible man underscores the obvious; Ray Keery went above and beyond the life changing role of a caring high school teacher.

Ray Keery passed away on August 11, and it was a privilege to present Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” at his funeral service. My first discovery of this great poem came from Dead Poets Society. This epic 1989 Academy award-winning film, staring Robin Williams as Mr. Keating, is an inspiring Hollywood representation of a legendary teacher who wasn’t afraid to break the rules. Mr. Keating empowered students to deliver their barbaric “yulp;” to see the world from a different view; to find their true self; and to seize the day. While watching that movie, I thought, wow, Mr. Keating is one hell of a teacher… but he doesn’t have a thing on Mr. Keery.

I am sure that I speak for hundreds of students who walked the tech halls of high school, feeling like we had been given a purpose, and most importantly, a place to be who we were meant to be thanks to the Skills Canada vision. Welding, drafting, machine shop, auto shop, electrical and construction trades were the subjects that called our name, and Mr. Keery, ODCVI’s Head of Technical Education, called out to our leadership potential. We knew we were part of something great, and Mr. Keery brilliantly forged the path to opportunities that no other high school experiences could have ever delivered.

My career aspirations put conservation over carpentry but the mentorship of Ray Keery provided life’s most transferable skills. Because I admired how Ray always stayed true to his cause, he motivated me to pursue a cause-based career of my own. I was fascinated with his dedication to building programs from the ground up. It was a proud day when, a few years into my professional life, I was able to tell Ray about my enthusiasm for a new province-wide youth conservation and leadership program that I authored with the DNA of his Skills Canada dream. How fortuitous that the teambuilding obstacle course our high school Skills Canada team constructed in Haliburton Forest also served the first OFAH Get Outdoors Summer Leadership Camps.

This is not the first time I have expressed my admiration for Ray. On October 7, 1994, just a month or so into my first year of college, I poured my heart out to Ray in a three-page hand written letter. To be honest, I forgot I had done so. Ray kept that letter and it just was rediscovered and delivered back to me again. To quote my 19-year old self:

“Here’s to Ray Keery, my Grade 9 woodworking teacher, my Skills Canada advisor, my public speaking coach, my guidance counsellor, my mentor, my inspiration, my partner in crime, my best friend and my everything.”

Thank you, Ray.