A Life's Story
November 30, 2019
On his own terms
Walter Kisil lived with special needs but he refused to have his life -- or his wife's -- defined, directed or determined by others;
By: Kevin Rollason
Walter Kisil went to school and work, got married, was proud to own a house and travelled on vacations across North America.
While those milestones are far from out of the ordinary for most people, they were particularly proud accomplishments for Kisil, because he lived with special needs.
Kisil, who died July 27 at the age of 72 after a battle with cancer, was a local pioneer in his lifelong fight for inclusion and independence.
He pushed for his independence — and that of his wife of 44 years, Lorraine — during an era when group homes in the community were few and far between and many people with special needs were institutionalized.
"He wasn’t severely disabled; he managed to function on his own for many years," his sister, Linda Kisil, said recently.
"We didn’t know Walter was very different when we were young. It was when were closer to our teens we started to get it. He had a very strong work ethic. He would go to work when he didn’t feel good. He would take the bus every day and he was very independent, some would say he was stubborn.
"He just wanted to make his own way."
Oly Backstrom, president and CEO of SCE LifeWorks, which helps adults living with special needs find work and offers assistance with their needs later in life, said the life story of Walter and Lorraine Kisil is a testament to their own efforts, as well as the commitment of family.
"Wally and Lorraine really had to advocate for themselves for that life together that they had a vision for," Backstrom said. "Considering the times, it wasn’t a given that they would be supported in their quest for these typical aspirations like having a home, having a loving marriage and travelling together independently.
"Wally and Lorraine remind us that they had no disability in their persistence, their vision, their self-advocacy. And as for their love for each other, there isn’t anyone who couldn’t learn something from Wally and Lorraine."
Kisil was born in Austria in 1947, to parents Walter and Elisabeth. His father was born in Poland and had been taken to a forced labour camp during the Second World War until being placed in a refugee camp in Austria after.
He met Elisabeth in Austria, and they were married in 1946, and a year later, on June 27, Walter was born.
Two years later, Walter and his parents were all in Canada and settled in Winnipeg; a few years later Linda was born, followed by brother Rick.
Kisil went to school in a regular class in Winnipeg. But when he was 16 and in Grade 9 at St. John’s High School, he suffered his first seizure and he stopped attending classes.
The family was living in Lockport — with Kisil taking the bus into Winnipeg every day to work — when Elisabeth died in 1972. Shortly after, they moved back to Winnipeg.
Kisil continued to work at various jobs before going to work at ARC Industries, which is where he met the woman who would become his wife.
Lorraine got the ball rolling.
"I approached him," she said, giggling at the memory. "I asked Wally out. I had just broke up with a boyfriend. I was going to a wedding. He said he didn’t know, but then he said he changed his mind.
"He was a shy person, and he was so comical."
Lorraine said when they were dating he didn’t want to tell his family.
"His father saw us holding hands crossing Portage (Avenue) and when he asked Wally about it, he didn’t want to admit it at that time. But his dad said, ‘I want to meet this girl.’"
Linda said her dad and Lorraine’s parents really didn’t want to see the two of them get married, but her brother came up with a way to persuade them.
"(The parents) didn’t think they could manage on their own, so Walter rented an apartment to show he could live on his own and that he could take care of her."
They got married in 1975 and, after a honeymoon in the Black Hills of South Dakota, they moved into an apartment in St. Boniface.
Nineteen years later, after a lot of saving and with an inheritance Lorraine received, they bought a home, a white-stucco bungalow with brown trim on St. Mary’s Road. Not only was it a house of love, but also the go-to place for family on special occasions and their wide circle of friends.
"We had so many parties in that house," Lorraine said. "Birthday parties, anniversary parties, just parties.
"And if there was a party we’d go to, he wanted to be the first one there."
Linda also recalled the parties. "Christmas was for the family, but the wild parties were for the friends," she said, laughing.
The couple owned the house for 22 years until they were forced to sell it in 2016, because of increasing mobility issues. They moved into an apartment in St. Vital.
"Having a house was a challenge, but we did it," Lorraine said. "We were proud of it."
"And rightly so," added Linda.
Cynthia Anderson, a support worker for the couple, said even when Kisil got sick before his death he still talked about the house.
"He missed it," she said. "He knew he had to leave it, but they still missed it."
Angie Dickson, co-ordinator of retirement services with SCE LifeWorks, said Kisil "always had a sweet thing to say."
"He loved being with people. He would be helpful; he was the first person to open the door."
Rick said that with Walter being nine years his senior, they weren’t especially close growing up. He said it was as adults that they connected more deeply and he understood the challenges his brother faced and overcame.
"It wasn’t while I was young, but when I got into my 40s and 50s, you realize what a success it was for them," he said.
"We look at some of the stuff we worry about and they had that as well, but they got through it."
Rick said his brother decided at one point that he wanted a driver’s licence.
"I took him out and he made a left turn and ended up on the boulevard. He said, ‘I don’t think I’m going to do this,’ and that was that. He was the one to admit he wouldn’t be driving."
Rick said in the last few years he became even closer to his brother.
"He still didn’t want help, but you could tell he needed help."
Kisil bowled for more than 40 years and loved going to coffee shops and restaurants.
He and Lorraine also loved to travel. Besides their honeymoon in South Dakota, their destinations included Niagara Falls, Florida, Vancouver, Calgary, Denver and Tulsa.
One of their most memorable trips was an Alaskan cruise. Family members thought they should have chaperones, but Walter was insistent they go on their own.
"I worried about him, even though I didn’t need to as much as I did at times," Linda said. "I underestimated him many times."
Late in life, Kisil discovered he had a talent for woodworking and created several pieces he gave to family and friends.
Linda said her brother was a smoker, and his lung cancer was discovered after a fall, when he was in hospital being treated for a broken wrist and ankle.
"He never said he felt sorry for himself," she said. "All he ever said was he was mad at himself for smoking."
"He was a terrific guy," Lorraine said. "He always had a smile. He had so many friends. And he never complained. He never complained about his illness. He just never complained.
"He had a good life."
Besides his wife and siblings, Kisil is also survived by a nephew and niece, great-niece and his in-laws and extended family.