Rugby in Williams Lake will never quite be the same without one of its pillars, Rodger Stewart.
Rodger, 61, a longtime member of the Williams Lake Rustlers Rugby Football Club, was with some of his closest rugby friends attending an old boys tournament in Alaska when he died suddenly of a massive heart attack hours after they arrived on Aug. 3.
Rodger’s wife Tanis said since her husband’s passing the family has been supported with open arms by a family she didn’t even know they had in the Rustlers.
“We’re overwhelmed by the rugby community and what it’s done for Rodger,” Tanis told the Tribune, who explained rugby was her husband’s escape from the day-to-day stresses of life. “The love they’ve shown us is amazing. Rodger was a Rustler through and through.”
Life at the Rustlers clubhouse will also never be the same, said longtime friend and Rustlers vice-president Morley Wilson, who was with Rodger and the group on the old boys trip.
“As a friend he was a guy who was always there to help, always there to share stories whether it was rugby, fishing, working outside — whatever it was — he was always very welcoming,” Wilson said.
“As a rugby guy he was great to play with, he was so important to our club for getting things accomplished and he’s made a mark on the community in skiing, fishing, his outdoor professional work and his rugby. He coached, he reffed, and he was always there if you needed him and he’s left a big mark and he is going to be missed.”
Rodger’s life will be celebrated by family, friends, the rugby community and professional colleagues this Saturday, Sept. 14 in Williams Lake.
A husband, father and grandfather, Stewart’s passion, leadership and focus on community led him to become a leader in the Williams Lake rugby community where he had been serving as president of the Williams Lake Rustlers Rugby Football Club. He’d also recently offered his expertise in helping jumpstart the city’s Rookie Rugby program, led by the Rustlers.
Fittingly, Rodger’s celebration will be held at 711 Ottoman Drive: the home of the Williams Lake Rustlers and Hustlers clubhouse.
After learning of his heart attack, Rodger’s family flew to Alaska where his son, Nathan — a rugby player for the Castaway Wanderers and recently selected as a member of the Team BC All-Stars — suited up in his dad’s gear in a tribute to his late father that same weekend.
“He had asked me if had I wanted to go on the trip but I usually just let him do his own thing with rugby,” added Tanis. “Once I got there I saw that the fields they were playing at was so Rodger. There were mountains, forests and water all nearby. The scenery was amazing. All things he loved.”
Rodger was born on Vancouver Island and grew up in a small community near Duncan named Cobble Hill. His passion for the sport of rugby began in his high school years with the Cowichan Rugby Club where he played at the junior- and senior-high level.
After high school he moved to Victoria where he ultimately met Tanis while attending school at the University of Victoria. The couple moved with their two children, Ashleigh and Nathan, in 1993 to Williams Lake where Rodger secured a career with the ministry of environment and, later, the ministry of forests.
Once in Williams Lake, Tanis said Rodger immediately immersed himself in the Williams Lake rugby scene housed by the Rustlers as a player and, later, a mentor for the up-and-coming generation of players.
While his children were growing up he also coached Jackrabbits with the Williams Lake Cross Country Ski Club, coached high school rugby, youth soccer and was involved with the Timberland Alpine Ski Society at Mt. Timothy Ski Area.
One of his proudest moments, Tanis said, was when their son, Nathan, along with high school teammates Jake Ilnicki and his older brother, Riley Ilnicki, helped the Rustlers win a Stampede Rugby Tournament belt buckle.
“He was proud to be involved,” Tanis said. “He got to present the buckle to those guys and he had tears in his eyes he was so emotional about it.”
More recently, Nathan and Jake went head to head — Nathan as a member of the Team BC All-Stars, and Jake as a member of Canada’s national 15-a-side-team — in a Rugby World Cup warmup in Langford.
“I know Rodger would have just been so proud of both of them,” Tanis said. “Every opportunity he had to see them play he would, when Nathan was playing for UVIC, and we always said: ‘the rugby boys are our boys, too.’”
Roy Argue, another of Rodger’s longtime friends and fellow Rustlers teammate, said Rodger’s work behind the scenes in the rugby community will be missed and, as such, in honour of Rodger’s commitment, dedication, passion and contribution to the game of rugby in the community, the family is creating the Rodger Stewart Legacy Fund through the Cariboo Foundation Society.
“He did a hell of a lot of work behind the scenes fundraising for high school rugby, mini rugby, junior rugby, elite player development and for our men’s and women’s teams,” Argue said.
“He coached and refereed and many a fan enjoyed his colourful dress down of a deserving player now and then. He helped our club engage with the wider community in many positive ways and his colourful stories will be missed by his friends and teammates up at the Rustler’s Clubhouse.”
The celebration, scheduled to get underway at 1 p.m., will be a kids-, family- and community-friendly event, however, the family is asking for pets to be left at home.