Since 1992, the community of Brantford has been proudly represented worldwide by one special individual.
From his booming voice, special telephone bell and his smiling face, he has become a staple at a number of community events over the last three decades. Now, celebrating his 30th anniversary as Brantford’s Town Crier, David McKee, reflected on the experiences he’s had as one of Brantford’s most passionate ambassadors.
“Once upon a time, long, long ago,” McKee joked before sharing the story of how he became one of Brantford’s most recognizable faces. “I spent a huge amount of my life, even now I guess, in the entertainment business. I had been on the road for a long time, performing music and in nightclubs and other venues as well. It was going really well until my duo partner John decided he wanted to go back to school to become a teacher.”
At that time, McKee was living in Brantford with his now wife Betty Jean and was left looking for a job. Before long, he started a position in sales for a local security company.
“In the fall of 1990, the Brantford Chamber of Commerce put an advertisement in the old In Touch magazine that they were looking for a Town Crier for the year 1991, which was their 125th anniversary,” he said. “I was thinking to myself, ‘I’m in sales, this could be a really good networking opportunity.’ So I decided that I would go down to audition.”
The audition consisted of reading from a piece of paper given to him from a member of the Chamber. McKee said that his past in performing for audiences made it so that he had no problem reading the short script.
“From there, as they say, the rest is history,” McKee said. “They wanted me to join the subcommittee for the 125th anniversary and I was selected for the role. After that, they sent me to what used to be a costume shop on King George Road, who said they would provide the outfit. Well, it turned out to be a pirate costume, which is funny because to this day, kids still come up to me and think I’m a pirate.”
After getting his first costume, McKee began attending all of the Chamber events, making connections and preparing for his first big cry at the 125th anniversary celebration.
“During 1991, I thought I should find out a little bit more about Town Criers, so I did a little research,” he said. “I found out about the Ontario Guild of Town Criers, a wonderful organization that I have been a very proud member of. That year, I went to watch my first competition and that’s where I really learned how to do the job. At that competition, I found out that I had to be recognized by my community in order to represent them at events. So, I came home and it took a little time because there was an election coming up, but in 1992 the mayor at the time, Chris Friel gave me the official appointment.”
At the time, McKee was still developing his own Town Crier specialties. While some are known for their rhymes, he has become recognizable for his melodic “Oyez!”
“There is actually a story behind how I open my cries,” he said. “Town Criers don’t always need to use bells, it just needs to be something loud to grab the attention of the crowd. So I had an old post horn that I thought I would play, and I played the notes D, A, D. It was great in practice, but I didn’t account for nerves in my first cry and it did not work. Instead, I switched to a bell but decided to present my oyez in the same notes as I planned for the horn.”
That year, McKee decided he needed an upgraded uniform to be able to best represent Brantford at events and competitions.
“I entered my first competition in Oakville, I had my new uniform with crisp white pants and before the competition we all went out for lunch. So I’m sitting in this restaurant and suddenly a waiter spilled an entire glass of Coca-Cola all over my new pants,” McKee chuckled as he recounted the story. “I just had to roll with it. I took the stage for my cry, I accidentally had my scroll upside down, but despite it all, I finished third in that first competition.”
Since that first competition, McKee has travelled across the world to represent the community at different events. He said that some of his most notable stops along the way include New Zealand, Bermuda, Australia, and England.
McKee is currently the reigning Canadian champion after winning nationals in 2018.
“There hasn’t been any competitions since then, so my reign has been a little bit longer than normal,” he said. “Competitions have really been the learning ground for me. Seeing others from all over the world and how they present themselves and their cries has been instrumental in my success.”
One of McKee’s funniest competition stories came after he broke his ankle.
“I was worried about how to make it work,” he said. “But I was wearing a war uniform at the time, so I decided to wrap up my leg in white gauze and I squirted some red paint on it to look like a war wound. People loved it, I actually won that competition which was actually the provincial championships.”
Aside from national and provincial competition wins, McKee has come close to winning a world title, once placing second and placing top ten a number of other times. Arguably more meaningful than first prize, McKee has won multiple ‘best ambassador’ awards at world championships. The award is given to the competitor that the judges felt best represented their home community.
“Those awards are very special to me,” McKee said. “I do this because I love it, I love representing Brantford at these competitions and to receive an award for best representing my home will always be something that I cherish.”
In addition to competitions, are the other four of what McKee calls “the five C’s;” civic, charity, corporate and chamber. In a year, Brantford’s Town Crier attends around 100 events in any combination of these categories. Most fall under the civic and charity categories which include local events like fundraisers, flag raisings, and other celebrations.
“My most memorable cry will forever be when Queen Elizabeth II came to Brantford to name the Bell Homestead a National Historic Site 25 years ago,” he said. “I remember being so nervous, I spent weeks preparing. I’ve always been a royalist so to be a part of that day and to be so close to Her Majesty was something I will never forget.”
McKee said that another memorable day was presenting a cry on the day that the late Walter Gretzky was named honorary Lord Mayor of Brantford before he passed.
Outside of his position as Town Crier, McKee is celebrating 35 years of marriage to his wife Betty Jean. The pair have four children together and are looking forward to welcoming their 15th grandchild later this year.
Celebrating his 30th year as Town Crier, McKee is reflecting on the past and looking forward to the future. He is preparing to fundraise for a new uniform to continue to represent the community.
“Thirty years just doesn’t feel real, I almost can’t believe it,” he said. “I remember seeing older Town Criers, some in their 80s, at my first competition and thinking that I could see myself doing this for that long. I’ve had some unbelievable experiences as Brantford’s Town Crier, I’ve made so many lifelong friends and memories all over the world, all while representing a home that I love. As long as I can stand and ring my bell, I’ll be doing this. They’re going to have to carry me out.”