Dave Keay: Man With a Conscience

Photo by Carli Whitwell

By Pamela Steel

More than a hundred people gathered to bid farewell to Dave Keay at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in May. It was a diverse group, made up of family members, neighbours and former tenants of the Empire Hotel.

It was the Empire Hotel that brought him to Huntsville, and just weeks after the last brick was taken down from the burned-out shell of the building he loved, Keay died suddenly of a heart attack.

In the decade he spent in Huntsville, Keay touched the lives of many. He has been described as generous, caring and compassionate. He was a man with a conscience.

In a moving eulogy, friend Doug Banwell told the story of Keay’s life.

He was born in Calgary in 1954, but moved to Toronto at the age of three. His early years were defined by a love of music and friends.

“He had a thousand great, funny, poignant stories of growing up,” said Banwell.

After high school, Keay worked for the RCMP in Vancouver. But he told Banwell he felt it was important to travel in one’s youth. For five years, he sailed the world, exploring Central America, Australia, China and India.

He delved into ancient meditation and once went a month without speaking said Banwell, to warm laughter from the mourners.

Keay’s passions, said Banwell, were travel, reading, sailing and building.

When he sailed back to Canada, he pursued a university degree in divinity and education.

“After he graduated teaching jobs were few,” said Banwell, adding that this was when Keay began buying and renovating houses in Toronto with his mother Gertie.

“In the four short years I knew him, the person he spoke most of was his mother,” said Banwell.

Their business partnership eventually led to the purchase of the Empire.

When Keay first saw the Empire in Huntsville he was fascinated, said Banwell. Keay saw the potential in the building.

He pledged to turn it into decent, low-income housing. And the renovations began. He remodelled the building, room by room.

Banwell said that in the 10 years Keay owned the Empire, he evicted just one tenant, and spoke of it with regret.

He was described as a fearless man who always trusted people at face value.

Providing affordable shelter was his mission for most of the last decade of his life. If someone needed an apartment, he would do what he could to provide one, sometimes taking for rent what people could afford rather than market value.

Keay cared deeply for Clarence, the disabled man he often had at his side. He talked often of sailing off again, around the world, but his responsibilities at the Empire kept him tethered to Huntsville. And what would happen to Clarence?

He had a secure lock installed on the Centre Street door of the building, but never locked it, according to Banwell. The story Keay told was that the morning he had the lock installed he found a teenage girl asleep in the building’s stairwell. She needed a place to sleep after a fight with her parents. Winter was coming on.

“If I lock that door where is anyone in that situation going to go?” Keay explained to Banwell.

In the summer of 2009 Keay put the final finishing touch on the last cornice of the building. Two days later, fire destroyed the Empire.

Keay was there the night of the blaze, trying to comfort, and take comfort from, tenants and business owners.

At the service, Banwell finally summed up Keay’s character in one sentence.

“Whenever I find myself facing a moral dilemma, I will ask myself what would Dave Keay do?”

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