A Life's Story
February 20, 2021
Vacancy can't be filled
Richard Walls couldn't have transformed the derelict New Occidental Hotel into the hope-filled Red Road Lodge without his brother Keith, who had construction skills and faith in the people living there
By: Dave Baxter
For so many years, any time Richard Walls had a problem that needed fixing, he always knew, no matter what was going on, he could call on his brother Keith.
"Keith was the one person I would always call if I needed something done," Richard Walls said of his younger brother Keith, who passed away suddenly in his Winnipeg home on Dec. 6 at the age of 67, leaving behind his ex-wife, their two children and four grandchildren, as well as five siblings.
He became that go-to guy for me and saved my butt thousands of times, it just got to the point where if anything went wrong, you called Keith."
Richard is the owner and founder of the Red Road Lodge, a building formerly known as the New Occidental Hotel, which for many years, was one of the roughest and most notorious hotels and beverage rooms on Winnipeg’s Main Street strip.
Richard has spent years renovating and revamping the building into what it is now: an alcohol-free, single-bed occupancy hotel that works to help marginalized community members get shelter and get back on their feet, while also offering resources and programming for its occupants.
But while Richard said he often got the attention and recognition that came along with renovating the historic hotel, it was Keith who always kept things running behind the scenes.
"My background is in interior design, and Keith’s was in construction," Richard said. "So, when it came to construction and just those odd jobs that needed to be done, like patching some drywall or fixing a leaky pipe, it was always Keith who could come in and get those jobs done.
"It is impossible to state how important he was to all of this."
When Richard first bought the hotel in 2003, Keith came on as a member of the Red Road Lodge board, as well as project manager for the massive renovation job needed inside the derelict hotel that first opened its doors in 1886.
"Nobody had spent any money for so many years on this place. When people own these old hotels, they usually just run them into the ground to the point where they either burn down or they get demolished," he said.
"So, when I bought the place, we decided to utilize Keith, who had that construction background. We said, ‘Let’s take this old building and see what we can do.’"
And because Keith met and worked with many of the marginalized people who came and went from the Red Road Lodge, he soon realized he could help those people in other ways to find employment and get back on their feet.
Keith would often hire people he met through the Red Road Lodge to work on other building and construction projects he was working on, and in many cases, he would give jobs to those who otherwise would have a hard time finding work.
Richard said Keith put his trust in many of those he met at Red Road Lodge, and often was not worried about their backgrounds or what they might have done or gone through in the past.
"You know the person, and you know the flaws, and you can work with the flaws," Richard said. "Keith would say, ‘Yeah he’s struggling, but he can get the job done.’ He would even go pick them up if they needed a drive to the job site.
"He started to empathize and build relationships with a lot of these guys and would say, ‘Here’s a guy, I’ll give him a try.’"
And those who knew Keith also knew that when you worked with him, he would say what was on his mind.
"Keith was a crusty guy, he could be a little gruff; he probably wouldn’t have done too well in the corporate world with some of the things he said," Richard said with a laugh.
"But he had a big heart and was always willing to share his knowledge and information to help people along, and he helped a lot of people get on with their lives, because he gave them a leg up."
Under the gruff exterior, however, Richard said Keith had a "curious and intellectual side," as he was an avid reader of both fiction and non-fiction books, and a history buff who loved visiting museums and historic sites while travelling.
"He loved history," Richard said. "We travelled a lot together and he wasn’t interested in checking out the trendy areas with the bright lights, but he was always checking out those museums and historic sites.
"He liked to learn about the nuts and bolts of how these cities came together."
And from a young age Keith showed his own talent with nuts and bolts, working with his hands.
"Keith could build anything, he could rebuild anything and he could fix anything, and he was mostly self-taught," Richard said.
"He was a total jack-of-all-trades. With those skills he was always able to find work in his adult life, whether it was big renovation jobs or those odd jobs that always need to be done."
Richard finds it hard to believe that he would have gotten as far as he has without his brother.
"Over the years we ended up renovating all 47 rooms, and Keith played a huge role in that. I got the headlines with this place because that is the nature of the business, but I’m not sure where I am today without Keith."
And now that Keith is gone, Richard said he misses calling up his younger brother and misses the bond and the friendships the two shared.
"I wish I had someone like Keith now. Day after day you start to say, ‘If Keith could just be here, he’d figure it out,’ and you start to miss that.
"Those are the little things you think about, and the things you really miss."