Down Memory Lane - Willis Patchell
Down Memory Lane Articles - by Stan Shillington

Wilson Douglas Patchell was a reluctant hero, shrugging off accolades or deflecting them to his comrades.

It did not matter if the venue of life was a war-torn battlefield or and athletic field of dreams - superlatives such as "brilliant, spectacular, courageous" seem to follow his deeds.

Indeed, the man known as Willis was exceptional - a lacrosse player, a sprinter, a fireman, a soldier.

Willis was born April 22, 1893, in New Westminster's Sapperton district near the B.C. Penitentiary where his father served as warden.

He honed his defensive skills on the Sapperton lacrosse playing fields but his speed and ball anticipation were natural gifts. In 1910, Willis lined up with the Sapperton Junior team, and then transferred to Chilliwack the following year. He moved up to the Intermediate level in 1912 with New Westminster and with Burquitlam in 1913.

His outstanding checking skills soon had him lining up with the Salmonbellies professional organization but, after capturing the 1914 championship, the First World War cut short his athletic endeavors.

Willis joined the famous 29th Tobin's Tigers battalion and shipped out to Europe. While in England waiting transfer to the front, Patchell placed third out of 112 entrants in the 100-yard sprint at the Military Games and anchored the victorious relay team.

Patchell was still sprinting seven months later, not at a sporting vent but, rather, across the battlefields of Flanders. While helping to rescue a comrade trapped under heavy fire in No Man's Land, Willis lost a race against enemy firepower. Badly wounded in the leg, many skeptics questioned whether or not he would ever again play lacrosse.

The rescued comrade, W. D. Milne, later penned his feelings in prose:

"there I was in No Man's Land Alone, bewildered, trapped.
Strange how little courage man
When left alone display.
Me, no exception to the rule,
With fright, nigh turned gray.
The rest were safe, I fought in vain
To free myself, then swore
As if I'd in the army been
For twenty years or more;
But I was missed, I heard my name
Called by the other three
I dared not answer, lest the Borsch
Should get a line on me.
Back from the E-2 Wilson rushed
Through showers of pointed lead.
Said he 'You son….' Said I 'Shut up,
Don't swear among the dead. '
Here in No Man's Land of life
Where cruel Fates us snipes
Lucky is he who has a friend
Of the Wilson Patchell type.
The whole world may against you turn
And wage a constant war,
But ever by you will stand the friend
Who's a friend for what you are."

Patchell later would become a fireman in New Westminster while Mile joined the Royal City police department.

The injuries resulted in a return to Canada and an early discharge and, although some wondered about his athletic future, there was little question in Willis' mind - he would again take up his lacrosse stick and he would do it immediately.

He rejoined the Salmonbellies, playing on the pro championship teams of 1918, 1921, 1922 and 1924. Then the professional league disbanded, forcing Patchell and his teammates to sit on the sidelines until they were reinstated to the amateur ranks in 1927.

Willis helped the 'Bellies to the 1927 Mann Cup which gave the Royal City club the privilege of representing Canada at the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam. His previous professional status precluded him from participating in the Games but he toured Europe with the club playing in several exhibition matches. Willis continued playing lacrosse through the game's transition from field to box, finally retiring after the 1934 season at the age of 41.

During his career, Willis was so proficient at bottling up the opponents that he was invariably assigned to shadow-check the opponents' hot-shot goalscorers. One such adversary was the fabled .

When Lalonde was named a Charter member for the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame, Willis sent him a letter of congratulations. Newsy wrote back:" Thank you for your consideration, Willis but it won't be a Hall of Fame until you are in."

Wills was inducted into the Hall in 1976.