A Life's Story

June 04, 2022

A sporting life

Jim Keilback spent nearly 40 years behind a microphone

By: Geoff Kirbyson

Keilback’s career took him to Yorkton, Regina, Brandon, Winnipeg, Kenora, Phoenix and Tucson, where he covered amateur and professional teams in hockey, baseball, football, curling, golf and horse racing. (Supplied)

Jim Keilback wasn’t discouraged by the complete inattention — a silence that was interrupted only by the occasional moo — from his first focus group as a newsreader.

As a seven-year-old growing up on the family farm in Cloverleaf, Keilback would compile news clippings from the Winnipeg Free Press and Winnipeg Tribune and read them into a stand-up microphone he had built from a Meccano toy set.

"There was nobody there to listen except a half-dozen dairy cows," says his son, Curt, who followed his dad into the broadcasting business decades later.

Regaling a bovine audience with stories about the Great Depression, the newly-formed Winnipeg Rugby Football Club (later the Winnipeg Blue Bombers) and the first television broadcast from the downtown Eaton’s department store proved to be an excellent training ground as Keilback parlayed it into a broadcasting career that spanned nearly 40 years.

Keilback died in Regina in April at the age of 96. He was predeceased by his wife of 61 years, Pat, in 2009, and is survived by his seven children Curt (Linda), Lois, Drew (Dawn), Reid, Ginny, Andrea (Mike) and Jay; seven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

Curt Keilback made regular treks to Regina to see his dad earlier this year, highlighted by accompanying him one last time to his favourite watering hole, The Coliseum Family Restaurant and Lounge. Jim once again regaled his buddies with stories ranging from the rivalry between the Bombers and the Saskatchewan Roughriders to covering the 1972 Silver Broom curling championships in Germany.

"They were pretty excited to see Jim back again. He hadn’t been there for a month. They called him ‘88’ because that was his age when he started going there," Curt says.

The elder Keilback’s career took him to Yorkton, Regina, Brandon, Winnipeg, Kenora, Phoenix and Tucson, where he covered amateur and professional teams in hockey, baseball, football, golf and horse racing. He also broadcast curling, a sport where improvisation was required on occasion.

At one bonspiel in Springside, Sask., Keilback and his broadcast partner, Doug Sherwin, who he always called "Old Clem," arrived to call the final. There was just one problem — both teams had been "bonspieling" a little too much and couldn’t go on the ice.

Local merchants had already paid for their commercials on CJGX, so Keilback and Sherwin called a game that they made up as they went along.

"Dad and Clem stayed in the booth and hired a kid to help them on the ice. They would say ‘takeout’ and the kid would bang the rocks together. They faked the whole broadcast and got all the commercials in. Nobody was the wiser," he says.

Keilback also worked more than 20 consecutive Grey Cup games back when the host cities were either Toronto or Vancouver. Both Canadian National and Canadian Pacific railways would outfit "Grey Cup trains" to take fans and journalists to the national football championship.

"It was the same crowd every year. Half of the fun was the two- or three-day train ride. They would party all the way there," Curt says.

Young Curt didn’t ride the rails with his dad but he did get to hang out with him in the broadcast booth for Winnipeg Warriors hockey games and Winnipeg Goldeyes baseball contests.

"I watched the Warriors win the Edinburgh Cup when Billy Mosienko was on the team. I saw how much fun my dad and his buddy Cactus Jack Wells were having and I decided I wanted to be a hockey broadcaster, too," he said.

Curt was the play-by-play voice for the original NHL Jets, moving to the Arizona desert when the team relocated to Phoenix in 1996.

Jim’s radio training continued over his entire life. Daughter Lois said even when just the two of them were having a conversation, it was as if he was sitting in front of a microphone.

"He was practically yelling. ‘Dad, I’m right here!’ He was so used to projecting," she says.

Even when he was working the morning shift at the radio station or calling a game that night, the Keilback kids would all hear his voice.

"He’d broadcast around the same time as we’d be eating our breakfast. We didn’t listen to every single game but we did hear him regularly," she says.

"Because he was away a lot on road trips, we’d all be so excited when he’d come to the door."

Jim met Pat Blain at the Winnipeg Roller Rink in the 1940s when they were both teenagers and they were married in 1948.

"He always claimed to be the luckiest guy in the world and she tended to agree with him," Curt says with a laugh.

Pat was the family disciplinarian because she was at home with the kids, but Jim’s voice was one to be listened to, particularly on the many family road trips.

"We’d be asking ‘Are we there yet? How many more miles?’ and eventually he’d pull over, stop the car and say, ‘Get out and run.’ We’d run to burn off some energy and get back in," Lois says.

The Keilbacks went all over North America, including Detroit Lakes in Minnesota, Wisconsin Dells, Coeur d’Alene in Idaho, Denver, British Columbia, the Maritimes and up and down the U.S. East and West Coasts.

Every trip was full of memories, but the level of fun often depended on someone’s point of view.

One chilly night at Yellowstone National Park, the fire kept going out, so Jim was up much of the night feeding the woodstove. In the morning, all of the bright-eyed kids got up and went outside while their dad slept. The only problem? They left the door wide open.

"We came back and saw a bear standing in the doorway. Dad was terrified but we were standing there laughing. Eventually, the bear got tired of looking at him and left," Lois says with a laugh.

Even though he had been retired for many years, Keilback was more computer-literate than people a few decades younger, she adds.

"He had his daily routine. He was on the computer every morning checking out the sports scores, news stories and his financial records. He kept a daily log," she says.

"He was a doodler, too. I think this was probably his Scottish blood but he didn’t take a blank piece of paper. He’d find something with a little empty corner and doodle."

A celebration of Keilback’s life will be held Wednesday, June 8 at 2 p.m. at Windsor Park United Church.

geoffkirbyson@mymts.net

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