OBER email@example.com_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2003-04-30 published
By Alister THOMAS Wednesday, April 30, 2003 - Page A22
Father, husband, teacher. Born December 9, 1927, in Brockville, Ontario. Died January 31, in Cambridge, Ontario, of cancer, aged Dressed in a black, knee-length rayon gown, and with his sonorous voice and entertaining use of character voices, Walter Keith THOMAS was a commanding presence in the University of Waterloo classroom. "He was never afraid of being theatrical to drive home a point, "explained a former student.
Back in 1960, Keith, who wore the gown to reinforce the role of the university as a centuries-old tradition, was a founder of Waterloo's English department and served as its first full-time dean of arts. But his interests included much more than literature. From art, music, history and languages (he had a reading knowledge of French, German, Latin, ancient Greek, and a smattering of Gaelic) to astronomy, gardening, religious studies, rhetoric and Classical civilization: they all contributed to a greater understanding of each other.
"Teaching is, "he once wrote, "creating, in a student, the ability to see clearly and to evaluate wisely."
In addition to numerous scholarly articles, Keith, bespectacled and slight, authored eight books. His two bestsellers, Form and Substance, and Correct Form in Essay Writing, were the standards for student term papers. In the book, A Mind For Ever Voyaging, co-authored with friend and colleague Warren OBER, they tweaked a few noses by suggesting that William Wordsworth, the great Romantic poet, was not entirely original. Keith retired in 1991, and a year later was named distinguished professor emeritus.
His writing, especially his poetry, was visceral and replete with sexual imagery. Paradoxically, Keith, whose sideburns went up and down -- from non-existent to muttonchops -- in the opposite direction to the trends of the day, was a moral conservative. "Profoundly saddened, "was his reaction to a son and his girlfriend when they decided to live together instead of getting married.
A religious non-believer until his mid-40s, he found his faith first in the United Church and then as a Presbyterian. He called himself a "primitive Christian."
He was a self-confessed technological Luddite, and did not use cellphones, e-mail or automated teller machines, preferring more personal contact. When withdrawing money, Keith, a Canadian-history enthusiast, would often ask the teller for one King, a Macdonald and a Laurier ($50, $10 and $5).
Keith completed his three degrees (B.A., M.A. and Ph.D.) at the University of Toronto. His first full-time teaching job was as at Acadia University, from 1956 to 1960. While living in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, he entered a contest to describe his favourite Walt Disney character in 25 words or fewer. He profiled Jiminy Cricket and won $2,500 -- more than half his yearly salary. His first car, a 1957 Austin Cambridge, was called Jiminy. All 12 cars he owned over his lifetime had interesting literary names, as did the family dog, Dylan.
Always disciplined, he pursued his lifelong hobby of gardening with vigour. Even though he had no natural talent for music, he learned to sing church solos -- joyously. On May 31, 2002, he and his wife, Bettie, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. As next-door neighbours in Toronto, they had been teenage sweethearts.
Predeceased in 1978 by a son, Malcolm, Keith is survived by his wife and two sons, Alister and Kevin. Keith wrote his own obituary as well as his memorial service, including new words to old hymns.
For his pioneering efforts and three decades of professorial excellence, Keith was honoured on January 24, when Humanities room 232 at University of Waterloo was renamed the W. K. THOMAS English Department Faculty Lounge and Reading Room. The inscription on the plaque reads: A Mind For Ever Voyaging.
Alister is one of Keith's sons.
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