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Sam Gillman.
Sam Gillman.

obituary

Cancer survivor Sam Gillman outlived life's many obstacles Add to ...

On one of the worst days in Sam Gillman’s life, a surgeon gave him two options. It was 1953 and the doctor had just operated to remove the 32-year-old’s leg and part of his hip after a diagnosis of cancer.

“You have a choice,” the doctor told him. “You can get in your wheelchair, head downtown and sell pencils on the street corner.

“Or,” he said, “you can get on with your life.”

Mr. Gillman chose the second option. He became a champion for disabled people and an inspiring role model. By the time of his death on June 12 at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, he had excelled as a businessman, community leader, pilot and equestrian.

Sam Gillman was born in Sherbrooke, Que., in 1921. His father, Abraham, worked as a fur peddler and later as a fur wholesaler. His mother, Celia, raised Sam and his two younger sisters.

In 1940, the 19-year-old enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force and later received a commission as a pilot officer. He ferried aircraft from Britain to India and flew Allied commanders to and from Lord Louis Mountbatten’s Ceylon headquarters. At the end of the war, Flying Officer Gillman received the Burma Star for his service in that theatre.

When the fighting ended in 1945, Sam Gillman returned to civilian life. For a man who had gone through the Second World War unscathed, fate was about to play a cruel trick. In 1947, he broke his femur in a tobogganing accident. When the leg was X-rayed, doctors discovered a cancerous tumour. For the next six years, Mr. Gillman endured a series of painful operations as surgeons tried to excise the spreading growth. Finally, he was told there was no choice but to amputate the leg and part of his hip. Doctors also told him he probably wouldn’t live past 40.

The loss of a leg for such a young man was devastating. The worst part, according to his daughter Lynn Gillman, was that he could no longer ride a horse. Mr. Gillman had been an expert rider before his surgery and had owned a horse for years. But at the time it was generally considered impossible for a one-legged man to ride.

Other challenges emerged, including one key personal hurdle. In 1956, just three years after losing his leg, Mr. Gillman met Helen Goodman on a blind date in Montreal. He was smitten but faced stiff opposition from her parents. How could a disabled man support their daughter, they wondered. How could the young couple even have children?

Undaunted, Sam and Helen married a few months after their first date and settled in Sherbrooke. They eventually had two daughters, Celia and Lynn, and a son, Zachary. The marriage would last 58 years.

But having overcome his in-laws’ concerns, Mr. Gillman still had to deal with society’s attitudes toward disabled people.

“In the 1950s and 60s, most disabled people were kept at home or sent to an institution,” Lynn Gillman recalls. “Not my dad.

“He proudly walked and drove around Sherbrooke and never let the stares from strangers deter him.”

Mr. Gillman worked at first in his father’s store. But the fur business didn’t interest him. So he eventually started his own industrial electronics store, Sherbrooke Electronic Supply. Over the years, it expanded to include stores in Saint-Georges-de-Beauce, Drummondville and Mont Joli, Que. In the late 1970s, he sold the stores to his employees.

Now in his mid-50s, Mr. Gillman decided he wanted to learn to fly again. Most people were doubtful, since the foot controls for a plane’s rudder made it all but impossible for a one-legged man to become a pilot.

Mr. Gillman began researching the topic. Eventually, he read about a disabled man in California who learned to fly after designing and building a set of hand controls for his plane.

He wrote to him, asking the pilot to build him a set of controls, too. The man refused. More letters followed, but each time the man said no. But after months of Mr. Gillman’s non-stop requests, he finally agreed.

Eventually, a plane with newly installed hand controls was delivered to him in Sherbrooke.

The former RCAF pilot learned to fly again after more than 30 years, but the Ministry of Transport, nervous at the prospect of a one-legged pilot flying with hand controls, ordered him to accumulate twice the number of flying hours normally needed to qualify for a pilot’s licence. Once again, he overcame that challenge.

“I will never forget the look on his face when he came home from his test,” Ms. Gillman says. “That was determination.”

There was just one more item on Sam Gillman’s agenda. In 1990, when he was nearing 70, he decided that he wanted to ride a horse again. In some ways, this challenge was even harder than learning to fly with one leg. Balance is difficult enough for an able-bodied equestrian; it seemed impossible for a one-legged rider. Yet Mr. Gillman found a way, equipped with a special custom-made saddle and his trademark stubbornness and determination.

“He rode for himself but he also rode for the many disabled people, especially children,” Lynn Gillman says. “I’m sure it gave them and their families inspiration to see my dad sitting up so proudly on the horse.”

Mr. Gillman was active in his community, serving as chairman of his synagogue in Sherbrooke, president of the local Kiwanis Club and as an active member of The War Amps of Canada.

Years later, Mr. Gillman would recall his doctors’ prediction that he would not live past 40. He noted with a chuckle that he had outlived all of his doctors.

He remained fit until just before his death. Two or three times a week, Mr. Gillman would go to the YMCA and work out under the supervision of a trainer. He only ended these sessions at the age of 92, when he became too weak to continue.

But for all his achievements throughout his life, his children say Sam Gillman’s greatest gift to them was his attitude about overcoming obstacles.

“My father never made any excuses,” his son, Zachary, says.

“No matter how much pain he was in or how difficult a task was with his disabilities, he just did it the best way he could.”

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