WITH THANKS FOR THE LIFE OF PAUL WILLIS                                 by Wendy Terry

originally published in the 2014 Fall Issue

Paul Willis passed away July 20, 2014.  The successes of the Workers’ Educational Association, publisher of Learning Curves and a partner in University in the Community, over the past 30 years are as much Paul’s story as WEA’s. In tribute to Paul we give thanks for his leadership to the WEA.


In the summer of 1984, Paul had just finished law school. Previously, he had focused on his career as a musician. When he came to work for WEA on a student program, he began by staffing our community information booths, one of several learning information services for adults that the WEA developed and ran from the mid-eighties until 1997. At that time, the WEA was housed at First Unitarian Congregation on St. Clair Ave.


As part of this student project, Paul researched and wrote the report “The User Pay Policy—The Effects On Non-Credit Learning in Ontario”. The provincial funding for general interest programs for adults at school boards had been cut in 1982. In 1983 Paul found that after the cuts 90,000 fewer adult students were taking courses, a 40% drop in urban areas and a 60% drop in rural areas. Paul’s work was reported in the major dailies and discussed in the legislature. Although funding was not restored, the effects on adult learners were now documented. Paul’s meticulous research and fair manner garnered candid and open feedback from those he interviewed.


Shortly after working on the student projects, Paul joined the WEA Board of Directors, along with a fellow student worker, Gerard Nuberg. They were integral to the renewal of the WEA Board. Paul’s thoughtful manner, as well as Gerard’s, helped the senior members work through key renewal activities.


In the late 1980’s, the WEA took on another key project, funded by the federal and Ontario governments, “A Cross Canada study of Learning Information Services for Adults.” The report, “Unravelling the Tangle,” was prioritized by the federal ministry for policy consideration. Paul’s calm and fair manner, and his ability to keep us all in good humour throughout a very demanding period , was crucial to the success of this major project.


In the early 1990’s, Paul became President of the WEA, taking on the challenge of hosting the International Federation of Workers’ Educational Associations at Port Elgin, the CAW summer school site in 1992. It was Paul’s levelheaded decision-making that helped the WEA successfully host this international event – a major feat. We were now housed at Bathurst St. United Church at Bathurst and Bloor.


In 2002, the WEA celebrated its 75th Anniversary. Paul was the Master of Ceremonies.


When Rod Noel became President, Paul remained on the Board, contributing his expertise as a practicing lawyer to the WEA governance. With the arrival of funding changes in 1997, the WEA moved from a grant-funded, staffed, individual counseling model for learning information to a volunteerrun, community newspaper for adults returning to school called Learning Curves. It was a big jump to make since Learning Curves was to be completely funded through advertising. Again, with Paul’s support, equanimity, and knowledge, the WEA made this transition to social entrepreneurship. We were now housed at St. Luke’s United Church, at Carlton and Sherbourne.


In 2003, renewing a partnership with the University of Toronto that began in 1918, the WEA initiated the development of University in the Community to offer university-level courses to adults whose life circumstances had limited their access to postsecondary education. Paul’s legal knowledge helped us through this development.


From the early 1980’s, I worked with Paul as the WEA Coordinator, then in 1991 Karen Ferguson worked with Paul as Executive Director to 1999. Then I worked with Paul again coordinating WEA activities on a volunteer basis, after serving as the IFWEA liaison to UNESCO.


We are grateful for Paul’s contribution to the WEA over 30 years at three locations: three major initiatives (The Adult Learning Line , Learning Curves, University in the Community) three large-scale projects (hosting IFWEA ‘92, a Cross Canada Study of Learning Information Services, updating and revising the WEA By-Laws in 2011), three coordinators, numerous board and funding transitions, multiple crises and even more successes.


On August 19th 2014, we held a WEA Board meeting. Paul was there in spirit. Our sadness was tempered by our thankfulness for all he gave to us.



Toronto, Canada