Advertising executive, bon vivant, devoted uncle and brother, river rat. Born April 3, 1925, in Peterborough, Ont., died Jan. 2, 2013, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., of heart disease, aged 87.
Long before Mad Men’s Don Draper, there was Bill Browning – a handsome, flamboyant ad executive with Reader’s Digest. From his Manhattan headquarters, the dashing bachelor travelled the world as the magazine’s vice-president and international sales director. Blessed with charm, wit and a zest for life, Bill worked hard and played hard – martinis at the Playboy Club, evenings at 21 and a string of glamorous girlfriends. None of them, not even the brainy professor who was a dead ringer for Jackie Kennedy, could lure him into marriage.
He spent summers boating the St. Lawrence River on a series of cruisers named The Hangover. A devoted “river rat,” Bill eventually bought Lyndoch Island and set up Camp Browning, which became party central for legions of family and friends.
A day of boating with Captain Billy, often aboard the mahogany runabout once owned by entertainer Victor Borge, would be followed by cocktails above the boathouse and a feast in the rustic dining cabin. Ever the generous host, Bill was also a bit of a show-off. He liked to impress guests by water-skiing at breakneck speed, even at an age when the rest of his buddies were armchair athletes.
Bill’s love of the Thousand Islands extended to their wildlife. He donated Ironsides Island as a sanctuary for great blue herons. Every spring, more than a thousand of these magnificent birds return there to breed.
Bill was a self-made man who first honed his sales skills at the Kingston Whig-Standard and the Toronto Telegram. He grew up in Peterborough and Kingston, son of a travelling salesman who struggled to make ends meet. During the week, young Bill was man of the house, doing chores for his mother and helping care for his younger brother and two sisters.
At 16, he risked his life by diving in front of a ferry to save a drowning girl. He was awarded the silver medal of honour by the Governor-General and made a King Scout for his bravery. You could always count on Bill in a crisis, and he was ever the dutiful son, buying an ocean-side condo in Florida for his mother.
Though he never had children of his own, Bill was like a father to nephews Marc and Kim Aylesworth. He taught them to pilot boats and introduced them to the glories of Manhattan. When Kim died in a motorcycle accident at 22, Bill was heartbroken.
And there were other traumas. In the early 1960s, Bill returned from a trip to find burglars ransacking his New York apartment. They beat him with a glass bottle. His recovery was long and painful. A steel plate fortified his skull, and surgery restored a damaged eye. But his spirit remained unbroken, and setting off metal detectors at airports became a running joke.
After retirement, Bill spent winters in Fort Lauderdale, but always remained a proud Canadian and even owned a Canada Dry bottling plant, dubbed “the bubbly works.”
When friends passed away, Bill always sent flowers in the shape of an anchor inscribed “Bon Voyage.” So it seems only fitting to raise a glass and wish Captain Billy bon voyage. As he said himself, he had “a wonderful life and no regrets.”
Linda Laughlin is Bill’s cousin.