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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Willie Memegos rose from labourer to Chapleau public works superintendent as well as being winner of winter carnival backpack contests and tour guide for Bill Davis

Bill Davis (hands in pocket), Michael, William Memegos (white hat) and reporters

When William "Willie" Memegos and his brothers started as employees of the Township of Chapleau about 1949, they were working as labourers on the installation of the new sewage system. The pay was twenty-five cents an hour and in those days there were no coffee breaks.

Years later, after Willie became the public works superintendent, he would share stories of those days with me always paying tribute to J.M. "Jack" Shoup, a member of council and public works committee chair, who would bring the work crews jugs of water on a hot summer day.

Willie's brothers Baptiste and Adam also worked for the municipality for years, and in the view of many, Baptiste was the best grader operator there ever was. I can still hear the sound of the grader moving snow, clearing the roads in the middle of the night during the winter months. He could also perform his magic with a backhoe.

 Someone once told me that Baptiste was able to "manoeuvre this machinery with the precision of a diamond cutter" and it sure was true

When the Memegos family first arrived in the Chapleau area early in the 20th Century, they lived along the Nebskwashi River, an area where I loved to walk, and I have always felt privileged that Willie had once told me, "You can walk on my land any time."

I used to spend countless hours walking in the bush which some may call the forest, or the woods, but to me it will always simply be the bush. I had started going there  as a young boy, with my grandfather, George Hunt when he would take me along blueberry picking. It continued as an adult. The Memegos family always watched out for my grandfather who was still picking blueberries into his seventies.

For my walks I would leave from our home on Grey Street, go over the "Indian Bridge" across the "back river" (Nebskwashi River) and head off to Pellow's Field  or Corston's Farm, or just walk in the bush.

Rene Serre, Willie Memegos
Shortly after I became reeve of Chapleau, we needed a new township public works superintendent and were not satisfied with the applications we had received. Councillors Ernie Gilbert and Dr. G.E. Young suggested to me that we ask Willie if he would like the job.

Ernie was the legendary public works committee chair of his day on council, who would never hesitate to arouse me on a cold winter's night to accompany him to a home where the water had frozen, and the public works crew was on hand at maybe 50 below F. Willie was always on the scene.

Willie had not applied but when we asked if he would like it with the option that he could return to the position he had as foreman at any time, he accepted the position. And Willie never returned to his old job!

Willie would come to chat with me almost every day that I was at the Town Hall/Civic Centre, and gave me the benefit of his wisdom and guidance on all manner and sorts of things. He was a man of few words but he was always right on.

He would also lobby in his own way for projects like doing sidewalks and having a township crew undertake the installation of water and sewer, and a new road to the new Chapleau General Hospital.

Willie convinced me and council agreed to let the township public works department assume responsibility. The plan had been to contract it out.

One day Willie came into my office and said I had to stop construction according to the engineer's drawings because they were wrong. A change must be made. This led to a flurry of phone calls between us and the engineer's office, and it turned out that Willie was right and the engineer wrong! When I asked him how he knew, he replied simply, "I have a good eye."

Willie and his brothers worked on the original installation of the sewer system in Chapleau  and over the years had become experts from practical experience.

When Ontario Premier Bill Davis visited Chapleau in 1975, Willie conducted the tour which included the premier, members of council and hospital board as well as many members of the provincial news media. The media was really along because Mr. Davis had announced a provincial election that day in Timmins, and then flew to Chapleau for a visit. We did get some coverage in the Toronto newspapers as a result.

Willie and his family members also loved sports and for years totally dominated canoe races and other water sports. Willie also would win the backpacking contests at the winter carnival where participants started with a large canvas pack and walked a set distance where more weight was added. He long outwalked all other participants with weights the most could never lift let alone endure.

They also enjoyed broomball and hockey and one time played on a team called Robin's Hoods. Willie was also an outstanding fastball pitcher.

Although I had walked on the Memegos family land, I had never asked permission to do so. So one day when Willie and I were out on a tour of the municipality I asked him and he gave permission.

On  walks when I would reach the crook in the road entering the Memegos family land I would  think of Robert Frost's poem 'The Road Not Taken' and reflect on  the poet's words that "two roads diverged in a single wood" and think that so often we take  the road less travelled by, and that makes all the difference in our lives.

The contribution of Willie Memegos and his brothers to Chapleau,  made all the difference in the lives of citizens in all kinds of weather. My email is mj.morris@live.ca

1 comment:

Terry Bryson said...

Willie was a good friend during my time in Chapleau . I was forunate to visit Willie and his family original home on an island somewhere in the (bush) during one of our fishing trips. It was an experience I will always cherish. Willie loved to hunt and fish and I was so forunate that he shared these experiences with me. He lived a good life and his love for his mother and family was a priority. He had an amazing sense of humour and was one of a kind.

Terry Bryson

Michael J Morris

Michael J Morris
MJ with Buckwheat (1989-2009) Photo by Leo Ouimet

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