George Keay of High Prairie has lived up to his surname (pronounced key) in various significant roles to build the community and wider region.
He was one of the community leaders that convinced the provincial government to build the new High Prairie Health Complex that opened in April 2017.
As a businessman, he has also served as mayor for the Town of High Prairie, a founding member and current chair of the High Prairie and District Health Foundation, and past chair of the Committee of the Sustainability of Lesser Slave Lake.
His determination to get things done may have been set as a young child in an adventure on a horse.
“My dad gave me a calf when I was six years old and I sold it to Tom Harding and I bought my own horse, a Shetland pony,” Keay says.
He raced at various community rodeos in the north Peace region and honed his skills on a track on the family farm.
“One day I was riding on the home track and a grouse appeared and spooked my horse and she took off flat out,” Keay says.
“As she approached a fence, she immediately stopped and I didn’t, and I flew over the fence.”
That didn’t stop the determined boy.
“Then dad brushed the dust off and picked me up and I got back on the horse and away we went,” Keay says.
The Keay family plants roots in High Prairie:
George Keay was born in High Prairie in 1942 and has remained a committed citizen to make the area a better community.
He is the son of Heber Keay Jr. and Jean Keay, with an older sister Bertha, followed by brother John and sister Judy.
“This year marks 100 years of the Keay family farm north of town,” Keay says.
The Keay family planted roots in High Prairie in 1917 to settle farmland.
“When I was five, we moved west of where the current golf course is,” Keay says.
His father was a farmer and trucker and worked in various other jobs in the region.
“He was one of a group of people who organized a stampede in the early 1940s, even before the current Elks Pro Rodeo started,” Keay says.
George’s grandfather Heber Keay Sr. came to High Prairie from Nova Scotia in 1917 by train at a time when the E.D. and B.C. Railroad provided doubtful service, about two years after it first arrived in High Prairie.
He bought land at SW-6-75-16 from Dick Hayes and purchased the horses and equipment on the farm.
Heber Keay Jr. was born in 1913 and married Jean Hendry.
When young George was just eight years old, his father passed away in 1951 at 38 years of age after a lengthy battle with leukemia.
By George, that’s not his first name.
He was actually born Robert George Keay.
“My mother’s dad was named Robert and he lived with us for many years, so they called me George,” Keay says.
“They didn’t want two Roberts in the house.”
Keay starts and grows his own family:
George Keay married Louise Markin in 1965.
He met his future wife, who lived in Hills, British Columbia, in the west Kootenays. “We met at a school dance in New Denver,” Keay says.
Settling back in High Prairie, they grew a family with two sons.
Peter was born in High Prairie in 1966 and Christopher was born in 1970 in New Denver, back in B.C.
George and Louise currently have three grandchildren, Trent, Kelsey and Lindsey.
Peter has carried on the tradition of sports leadership by coaching minor baseball while his granddaughters are active with the High Prairie Figure Skating Club, along with mother Rhonda.
“During the winter, Kelsey and Lindsey are busy volunteering with CanSkate and Trent coaches High Prairie Mavericks midget hockey team,” says the proud grandfather.
Christopher and Jennifer live in Whitecourt where they both teach high school.
Christopher also volunteers for the Whitecourt Fire Department.
School days of George Keay:
Keay took his first two grades of education in a school where the High Prairie Golden Age Centre is currently located.
“The first year, I went to school with a horse-drawn van,” Keay says.
“It was a wooden structure with an air-tight heater.”
After that, he went to the original High Prairie Elementary School, where E.W. Pratt School is currently located.
“We had to walk a mile-and-a-half to catch the bus,” Keay says.
Keay went to school in Sundre for Grade 12, but did not graduate, when he returned home in the spring to help put the crop in.
Besides doing chores on the family farm, he found time for other activities that youth enjoy.
“I was in air cadets, played baseball and high school basketball,” Keay says.
On the baseball team, he was all over the field.
“I played just about every position except catcher,” Keay says.
“I didn’t want to get back there and get hit.”
As an athlete and eager to play a role in building his community, helped construct the Sports Palace in 1957.
“I remember pounding nails in the Sports Palace when I was 14 years old,” Keay says.
“Most of the guys were nervous about getting high on top of those beams, but I was young and invincible like most of the young guys were, and are.”
Many and varied careers of George Keay:
Living on the farm and doing all sorts of chores, he then entered the world of full-time work, starting out in sawmills, construction and driving truck.
During the 1960s, he worked for Frank O’Brien Sawmill in various jobs, Everall Construction, and driving grader and snow plow for the Government of Alberta.
As a qualified shoemaker, he operated George’s Shoe Repair downtown High Prairie from 1973-76.
Keay closed down shop to enter the world of real estate when he owned and operated Royal LePage from 1976-2006 when he retired.
“I sold abut 75 per cent of houses in High Prairie at least once,” Keay says.
“Some I sold several times.”
Mayor of the Town of High Prairie:
George Keay served as the mayor of the Town of High Prairie from October 1998 to October 2001.
One of his priorities was to build a relationship with the Municipal District of Big Lakes (now known as Big Lakes County).
“Back then, there were all kinds of problems,” Keay says.
“They couldn’t agree on anything, and I wanted to straighten out some of those problems.”
That was one of three goals he had for council in the three-year term. Building a relationship with High Prairie School Division and improvements to the airstrip were the other two priorities.
“In a year’s time, we had them all done,” Keay says.
He appreciated the team around him.
“I had a good council and we accomplished a lot,” Keay says.
“We built the water treatment plant we now have, that was a big one.”
“I thought that was pretty good for a three-year term.”
After winning the election against two other candidates, he decided to not seek re-election in the 2001 election.
“I had a grandson who played hockey and I wanted to watch him play,” Keay says.
Committee of the Sustainability of Lesser Slave Lake:
Still during his time as mayor, he was instrumental in establishing the regional Committee of the Sustainability of Lesser Slave Lake around 2000.
“When I was mayor, I called a meeting to deal with the sustainability and the water level of the lake,” Keay says.
That brought together a variety of stakeholders with interests in the lake from the west in the High Prairie area and east to the town of Slave Lake.
“I was quiet at the first meeting, until somebody said let’s do a study of the lake and I said it’s been studied to death,” Keay says.
“Let’s actively go and do something and see if it will work.”
In the early stages, he served as chair of the committee for six years.
“We were dealing with some of the problems of the lake and it’s still evolving,” Keay says.
He has been committed to sustain local resources for the long-term future.
“I want my grandchildren to be able to enjoy the lake as I have,” Keay says.
With low waters in Lesser Slave Lake in spring 2016, some people again called to raise the weir at Lesser Slave River.
“When I chaired the watershed committee around 2000, we tried to get the provincial government to raise the weir and put in a gate, so if water levels were low, you could control how much water was going down the river,” Keay said at the time.
Over the years, the committee addressed lake issues.
The committee was the predecessor of the Lesser Slave Watershed Council that was established in 2007 as a Water for Life partner with the provincial government.
High Prairie recreation board
Keay has been active in sports and chaired the High Prairie and District Recreation Board for a three-year term starting in the early 1980s.
Back then, the board comprised of four members at large and one council member each from the Town of High Prairie and I.D. 125 (later became the Municipal District of Big Lakes).
“We were fully responsible for recreation with a budget, approved by the town and I.D. councils,” Keay says.
During those years, the board operated and maintained the Sports Palace, High Prairie Curling Rink, the outdoor High Prairie (and District) Swimming Pool and Jaycee Park, before the Gordon Buchanan Recreation Centre and High Prairie District Aquatic Centre were constructed.
Community support was strong and people were always ready to chip in to make things happen.
That was evident in the early 1970s when he was part of the crews that built ball diamonds in Jaycee Park with the growth of men’s fastball and minor baseball and teams wanted quality facilities.
“We didn’t have much for ball diamonds, so we got some guys together, with equipment from the town, and built ball diamonds,” Keay says.
He also played active roles when High Prairie hosted two prominent sports festivals.
Keay chaired the Peace Winter Games held in the mid 1980s.
“Events like that were good for the community, because you brought in people from all over the Peace Country,” Keay says.
“Everybody in the community got involved; students from the schools, the Town of High Prairie and the M.D. of Big Lakes.”
Years later in the same decade, he and his wife Louise volunteered for the Northern Alberta Summer Games in High Prairie.
Mike Olanski, John Keay, Tim Iannone, Bernie Poloz, team sponsor Vic Chodzicki (holding the trophy), Rick Foster and Peter Freeman. Back left-right, are Fred McQuaig, Darwin Peterson, Brian Martinson, Don Cunningham, George Keay and Rod Berg. Missing in the photo are Myler Saville and Wayne Kelly. That year, the team also captured its third straight title in the High Prairie Men’s Fastball Association.
Fastball and baseball
Keay has also been a leader in men’s fastball, minor baseball and curling.
He played for Vic’s Super A Playboys that won the Alberta Intermediate “C” Men’s Fastball Championship in 1974 and 1976.
Keay was in the outfield and mainly defended left field with brother John Keay in left field and Bernie Poloz in centre field.
“We were a pretty good outfield,” Keay says.
“Not many balls dropped on the ground if they were hit in the air.”
Coaching minor baseball in the late 1970s to early 1980s, Keay led teams to provincial championships.
“We went three times to the provincials, starting probably in 1981 or 1982,” Keay says.
Curling was the big winter pastime for Keay.
As a player and coach, he took several trips to the provincial championships.
Back in 1986, he played on a team that represented the Peace Curling Association at the men’s provincial when Ed Lukowich of Medicine Hat won the title.
The team included skip Ron Chenek, lead George Keay, second Chris Grey and third Laurie Savill,
Keay coached a junior men’s team that went to the provincials in 1986.
That included his son Peter as skip, along with lead Leo Dube, second Gary McIntosh and third Ralph Brust.