William Hilton Wrigley: Volunteer. Builder. Musician. Storyteller. Born Aug. 11, 1932, in Montreal; died Oct. 22, 2020, in Toronto, of cardiac arrest; aged 88.
Growing up in Côtes-des-Neiges, Montreal during the Depression and war years, Bill’s family may have been poor by today’s standards, but his family life was rich. In elementary school, Bill learned to become ambidextrous because the nuns who taught him equated left-handedness with the devil. But as the children of an Anglican father and a Catholic mother, Bill and his older brother Jackie were not baptized in any church and they attended schools of both denominations.
Bill was athletic – he played football, hockey and even ski jumped – but while intelligent, he was not academically focused. Bill quit high school and worked alongside the Kahnawake ironworkers, who were renowned for their skill in erecting structural steel. They would influence his career choice and his later education. But after a year of backbreaking work catching hot rivets, he returned to complete his final year.
He never lost that thirst for adventure – Bill raced road track motorcycles throughout Quebec and moonlighted as a scuba diver salvaging ship debris at the bottom of the St. Lawrence Seaway.
In 1955 a mutual friend introduced Bill to Cherie Kane, the firecracker daughter of a well-to-do industrialist from Town of Mount Royal. She became his navigator during car rallies and they married in 1957. Three children (Bill, Constance and Derek) followed in quick succession. Their fourth child, Heidi, came along in 1967 and was deemed to be the family’s Centennial project.
He had joined Dominion Bridge Company shortly after graduation as a draftsman and worked on many building projects across Canada. Between 1961 and 1970, while still working full-time, Bill began night classes to obtain his MSc in math and physics. He then ascended the executive ranks at Dominion Bridge and other manufacturing companies in Toronto, Nova Scotia and Winnipeg. He travelled a lot but he found time to be with his children, building and racing soap box derby cars and model airplanes, on vacation he taught them to sail.
After a divorce in 1987, Bill married Carolyn Swadron in 1990 and they lived in Toronto. Here he joined the Toronto Banjo band and Bill could perform with the instrument he had played since childhood. He was a doting grandfather to Brynne, Leland and Graydon and shared his love of reading with them, especially when he built and installed the city’s first Little Free Library.
Around the time of his 60th birthday, Bill was diagnosed with cancer, which forced him into early retirement. Not one to sit still, he started taking lessons in the Cree language and was inspired to learn more about Canada’s Indigenous history. After his recovery, he attended U of T and obtained his BA and MA in Anthropology with a focus on Indigenous studies. His master’s thesis researched the Mohawk Ironworkers.
He also took up furniture making, specializing in Shaker tables, and collected model trains, which he displayed throughout the house. His Toronto home was near Maple Cottage and the tree made famous by Maple Leaf Forever songwriter Alexander Muir. From 13 keys collected from that tree, Bill grew a sapling that was transplanted – and still grows – in a park near the cottage.
Bill was patient and funny and loved to teach his family about astronomy, mythology and science at the dinner table. But nothing gave him more pleasure than to regale listeners with recitations of The Cremation of Sam McGee.
Constance Wrigley-Thomas is Bill’s eldest daughter.
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