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Remembering Paul Willis

Leader remembered fondly for his love for community and willingness to fight for it

“He was just always doing something,” Alex Vujcuf recalls of Paul Willis, his partner of six years. 

As a lawyer, community leader and accomplished violinist, Paul Willis was a man for whom time rarely stood still.

“He was just always doing something,” recalls Alex Vujcuf, Willis’s partner of six years. “Paul donated so much of his time and money to many organizations, and he really cared about people and causes. In my eulogy at the church, I talked about how there was rarely a spot open in his day timer. Always, always on the go.”

It is certainly to this tireless energy that we owe so much in paying tribute to Paul Willis. As one of the founding members of the Church-Wellesley Village Business Improvement Area, Willis dedicated years of effort and organization to bring together area businesses and property owners — even though his own law practice a few blocks north of Church and Wellesley ultimately fell outside the BIA’s borders.

As the owner of Timothy’s Coffee on Church Street, Toronto Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam worked alongside Willis for several years. She fondly remembers his elegant Burberry ties and his heartfelt commitment to a cause from which he received no direct benefit. 

“I remember him being disappointed that we didn’t have enough business properties to expand the BIA up to his law office,” Wong-Tam says. “But he was of the understanding that if the Village was to thrive and be successful, it had to be financially responsible. He was still at every meeting and was very helpful guiding us through the negotiations. That was just his style.”

Former gallery owner and friend Dennis O’Connor believes Willis’s dedication to Village life was a natural offshoot of the man’s natural impulse to lend a hand where needed.

“He was just a genuine person who had a great deal of fight and love in him for our community,” says O’Connor, now retired and living in Ottawa. “Whenever there was a political issue, he was always there, and he did an awful lot of pro-bono work for people and community causes as well.

“I think about him and people like [sculptor] Del Newbigging who were such a part of that early gay movement. Now they’re sort of slowly dying out, and here another one of our heroes is gone. Someone who worked hard to make sure we weren’t lost in the background. We need more like him for the next generations, to safeguard our rights.”

Prior to his cancer diagnosis earlier this year, Willis had already retired as concertmaster from his beloved Counterpoint Community Orchestra because of tendinitis. But he still indulged other passions, like swimming and his spectacular garden, and was excited about a new business venture with Vujcuf.

Together they opened Sandy Aleksander, an upscale cheese and charcuterie shop near their home in Leslieville. After Willis’s death, Vujcuf decided to sell the business. “I was devastated,” he says. “This business was supposed to be so Paul could close down his practice over the next few years. I felt I had to move on.”

After the diagnosis, the disease spread quickly. Pancreatic cancer is unfortunately both speedy and ruthless, and Paul’s health foundered. But despite the pain and the knowledge that his time was limited, Paul remained very much himself until the end.

“He always had his chin held high,” Vujcuf says. “He always had this image of professionalism and dignity, being proud of who he was.”