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Red Williams: A remarkable life!

Nutrition with John McKinnon

This year is one of reflection and celebration for the staff and readers of Canadian Cattlemen as it celebrates 80 years of publishing. In the spirit of this celebration, I would like to reflect on and celebrate the life of a man whose passion for Canada, Canadian agriculture and in particular the Canadian beef industry was nothing short of remarkable. I am referring to Dr. Charles Melville Williams who died on March 18, 2018, at the age of 93.

Dr. Williams or “Red” as he preferred to be known was many things to many people including father, grandfather, sailor, university professor, extension specialist, adviser, mentor and friend. Like many of his generation, following the outbreak of the Second World War, Red enlisted in the Canadian Armed Forces at the age of 18. He saw active duty in the Atlantic and Arctic theatres while serving in the navy on the HMCS Sioux. For his military service, Red was awarded numerous medals including being named a Knight of the National Order of the Legion of Honour for his service during the liberation of France.

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Following the end of the war, Red returned home and enrolled at the University of British Columbia where he earned bachelor of science and master of science degrees. He then enrolled at Oregon State University earning a PhD in 1955. With respect to his involvement with the Canadian beef industry, this is where his story begins. As noted in Hoofprints to Reprints — a history of the department of animal and poultry science, Dr. Milton Bell, the department head at the time, hired Red following a forage/pasture tour outside of Lacombe, Alta. According to Dr. Bell, a handshake was all that was necessary to seal the deal. Red spent the next 60 years at the University of Saskatchewan.

Red’s impact on the beef industry during his tenue at the university was immeasurable. One can travel almost anywhere in Canada and meet someone in the agriculture community who was a student of Red’s or attended one of his presentations. If you prod them about their experience, more than likely you will find that their lasting memory is not what he said, but rather the booming authority by which he delivered his material. Red never turned down an invitation to speak if he could help it and he literally had thousands of invitations. He travelled across Western Canada to high schools, community halls, legions, motels and churches speaking on issues that were important to livestock and grain producers. He had a specific interest in First Nation communities and spent over 30 years working to expand their involvement in grain and livestock production. As his career developed, he expanded his interest and drive to encompass international development activities in numerous countries including Kenya and the Philippines, as well as serving on a variety of boards for local charities and development organizations.

For most of his life, Red worked in an era without the internet, Facebook or Twitter! Yet it seemed that everyone knew of Red Williams! In addition to speaking at hundreds if not thousands of producer meetings, Red communicated extensively with the farming community through the written word and the airwaves. Red’s first article in this magazine was published in 1956 and was entitled “Performance Testing of Beef Cattle.” Since that first article, Red authored hundreds of articles for local, regional and national newspapers, producer magazines and community newsletters. He was a fixture on radio and television whether it was in front of national or local audiences. To give you an example of his output using these two forms of media, consider that from the early 1980s, Red was producing daily radio tapes for distribution to stations across the Prairies. The segment was entitled “Now That’s Food For Thought.” At the height of his “radio career” he was producing in excess of 250 tapes annually on topics related to Canadian and international agriculture. At the same time he was writing 52 columns per year for distribution to rural newspapers. Is it any wonder that everyone knew Red Williams?

Besides communicating with livestock producers at a grassroots level, Red also had the ear of politicians or perhaps more appropriately, politicians had the ear of Red Williams! His opinions on grain and livestock production, agriculture policy and rural development are imprinted on Canadian society through his advice to successive provincial and federal cabinet ministers, premiers and prime ministers. For this service to Canada, Red was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 1989 and awarded the Sask­atchewan Order of Merit in 2002. Among his many awards, the Confederation Medal (1992), the Sask­atchewan Agriculture Hall of Fame induction (1996) and Queen Elizabeth’s Silver (1979) and Diamond Jubilee Medals (2013) stand out.

On a personal level, Red was a close colleague, mentor and friend, not only for myself, but for all who worked with him. He always had time for new faculty, particularly when it came to advice on connecting with the agriculture community. His career is an inspiration to all academics and a reminder that it’s not always about the research grants or published papers — it’s what you give back that counts!

About the author

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John McKinnon is a beef cattle nutritionist at the University of Saskatchewan.

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