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lives lived

William (Bill) Walter McNeill: Humanist. Friend. Mentor. Chef. Born June 21, 1936, in Manitou, Man.; died March 25, 2018, in Victoria; of dementia; aged 81.

William (Bill) Walter McNeill.The Globe and Mail

Bill was the sixth of seven children born into a Manitoba farming family at the height of the Depression. Life for Prairie farm families was dictated by the poverty of the times, the struggle to grow crops and to keep children fed, clothed and educated. Bill’s large family (he had four sisters and two brothers) moved north to Lockport, Man., and then on to what is now Thunder Bay, Ont., to keep the family thriving. After finishing Grade 8, Bill took a technical course then went to work, doing his part to support the family. Eventually, Bill moved south to work in Toronto, and, in the early 1960s, he attended Sir George Williams University in Montreal to earn an English degree.

People who knew Bill only in his retirement years in Victoria found him to be a quiet, dignified, conservative older man known for his interest in opera, for his cooking and for his hospitality. In his youth and early maturity, he was the force behind the rebuilding of the World University Service of Canada, one of Canada’s largest non-governmental organizations. Beginning with a staff of seven in an old house in Ottawa, over the next 17 years, WUSC expanded onto the campuses of Canadian universities and colleges helping hundreds of Canadian professionals volunteer on development projects in 22 countries.

Bill was a risk taker and he was keenly interested in humanity, treating people equally and with respect. His talents fitted the times: he joined CUSO – Canada’s Peace Corps – in 1964.

At CUSO, Bill developed what became his signature skill: the ability to recognize when a person had more to offer. He was able to spot talent, offer encouragement and give people a chance. It was a gift. He was ahead of his time in placing women in positions of high responsibility.

WUSC, under Bill’s direction, grew rapidly. He became a trusted partner of university presidents, senior civil servants, ambassadors and even some prime ministers from countries in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and South America. The government of Peru even awarded Bill the Order of Merit for Distinguished Services for funding water supply services in the slums of Lima. WUSC is setting up a memorial fund in his name for its student refugee education program.

Bill was not a flamboyant person but he had style. His home in Ottawa was full of elegant carpets, original paintings and African sculptures; the dining room had a caged West African grey parrot in one corner. Bill loved having people for dinner or lunch or for a sit-down dinner of 50. He and his partner, Robert, continued to entertain (and even opened a cooking school) on the large property they bought in the Azores, Portugal (at the behest of their cleaning lady).

Bill loved to surround himself with the people he loved; the more the merrier, and at all times.

Barbara Hoffman is Bill’s friend.

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Lives Lived celebrates the everyday, extraordinary, unheralded lives of Canadians who have recently passed. To learn how to share the story of a family member or friend, go online to tgam.ca/livesguide