If you do what you love to do, you’ll be successful. For John and Donna Weber, their love of sports has brought personal fulfillment, and helped make Kitchener-Waterloo a stronger community.
As this year’s Guests of Honour at the 22nd Annual Mayors’ Dinner, Donna and John are being celebrated for their decades-long contributions to amateur sport, from managing teams to feeding hundreds of tournament participants.
Team sports are important to developing co-operation, competitive spirit and the bonds that make individuals stronger, as well as their connections with each other. “I’m a big believer in team sports,” says John. “Solo sports like golf and swimming are fine, but who do you celebrate with? On a team, there is a sense of camaraderie, of hanging together.”
The couple’s connections with sports and their service to the community run deep. Born in Kitchener in 1939, John grew up in a home where athletic participation was a given. His father, Alson Weber, was “an all-around good athlete,” excelling in football and volleyball. John and his two brothers, Jim and Ross, participated in football, basketball and track & field. When John played football in Victoria Park, where the clock tower now stands, his supportive parents rarely missed a game.
John enjoyed sports so much during his teen years that academic achievement took a back seat, for awhile. After completing Grade 12, he was accepted at Bluffton College in Bluffton, Ohio. With a substantial Mennonite heritage that reflected his own values, the college was attractive to John. It also featured strong sports facilities and teams. While studying there, John played baseball and football.
“I was not yet ready for the real world,” John recalls. “Playing baseball and football were my priorities. Education was not at the top of the list … [but] by third year I got serious about my education.” John remembers from his days there how important football is to many people in Ohio. He recalls the great football coach, Woody Hayes, who said there are three important things in life: football, football, and football. Many people’s weekends consisted of going to a high school game on Friday night, a college game on Saturday, and watching an NFL game on Sunday. “The other four days are getting ready for the weekend.”
But sport was not the only important lesson of Bluffton. John also remembers a bigger influence - an economics professor, Dr. Howard Raid (“Pappy”), who inspired him to do good. “Dr. Raid told us to remember three things,” says John. “Support your family. Contribute time and money to church and community. And don’t forget Bluffton College.”
Donna learned similar values, in a Presbyterian environment growing up in Listowel, the daughter of farmers. “I was born on the kitchen table on our farm,” she recalls. As a young girl, Donna learned the importance of kindness and generosity. “My heart steers me towards hospitality,” she says humbly, “Everybody eats.”
Professionally, Donna trained as a nurse in Wingham. After graduation, she moved to Kitchener, where she got a job at St. Mary’s General Hospital, when it had a maternity ward. Later, she started working for two physicians in their private medical practice. (She’s still there, 43 years later, working mornings).
Their mutual interest in sports brought John and Donna together. They met at a ball park in 1967, and married two years later. “We really became a team,” John says. “Virtually everything is a team effort: Donna, the lead hand; John, the helper!”
Donna and John raised three kids, Deborah, David and John-Michael. John was also busy running the family business, Superior Memorials. But they regularly participated in organizing, running and fostering sports activities.
John was involved in various executive roles with the Kitchener Panthers baseball club for more than 40 years, coached teams from the Peewee to Junior levels, and chaired the National Junior Baseball Championships for five years. He also led the Inter County Baseball Association, Kitchener Sports Association and Kitchener Minor Baseball.
Donna’s love of food and hospitality has mixed smoothly with her contributions to sports. In the mid-1990s, she prepared the food for a large dinner for athletes at the Kitchener Auditorium. When the World Women’s Hockey Championships were held in Kitchener in 1997, she decorated the hall, and led the food preparation. “The people from the hockey association wanted me to get foods that would cater to the tastes of teams from around the world,” she says, “such as sardines for the Russians. We got lots of sardines. But no one ate them. They wanted to eat Canadian food.” It was dishes like the four kettles of soup she made each day that the players really enjoyed. And the bark – cereal, peanuts and white chocolate – which Walter Gretzky and the members of the Chinese team particularly enjoyed!
The Canadian women’s team wanted to hire Donna as their cook when they went to China, but she declined because she was so busy here.
In 2002, Donna headed up the catering for the World Fastball Championships. She featured a menu of Waterloo Region fare, such as locally made bagels and jams for breakfast, chilli at lunch, and pies from Anna Mae’s Home Baking in Millbank (16 different kinds of pie, 6,000 slices sold). “It was not typical ball park food,” Donna says, noting that the revenue ended up being twice as much as originally projected, bringing in more money than the beer tent. Of course, Donna did not do all the work alone. She commends the loyal team of volunteers who work at all the events, and who have developed a real bond with one another.
Donna has also been active with the Kitchener Minor Hockey Association for more than 35 years. She heads up the Sponsored Children’s Program, which allows access to the game for kids whose families may not be able to afford the equipment and fees. The program pays for the registration. Partnerships with providers such as Play It Again and Sportco bring in equipment. Financial support from funeral homes, other donors, and the Kitchener Rangers, make the program sustainable. The Kitchener program supports players at the rep level as well. “It’s the best program of its kind in Canada,” Donna says. “The hugs and kisses and smiles from the kids” prove that.
What drives John and Donna to contribute so much of their time and energy to sporting activities? It is the notion of community service, that one should give back to the community that provided so much for them. “It’s not a burden,” says John. “We enjoy doing it.”
The two have been recognized for their contributions. Both have been inducted into the Waterloo County Hall of Fame. Donna has been made a life member of the Kitchener Minor Hockey Association, and was volunteer of the year in minor baseball in 1995 and hockey in 2003. Both John and Donna were presented the Queen’s Gold Medal Jubilee Award in 2002 for her service to country and community. John was recognized as volunteer of the year in 1992 for Kitchener Minor Baseball, and in 1999 he received a Special Achievement Award from the Ontario Government for his work in amateur baseball.
The Webers don’t seek recognition, though. They participate because they love sports and because they feel strongly that they want to contribute to making the community stronger. And though they now spend part of the winter in warmer climes, and have three grandchildren to dote over, they haven’t really slowed down. When one game ends, there is always another one coming up.