Chapter Eleven Bill Skilling

August 20, 1889 was the birthday of a dear little baby boy, born just two years after sister Gertrude, and five years before me. My parents named him William Milton but, until he was well into his teens, they called him Willie. He was a blond little boy with almost white hair and big brown eyes. He was a gentle child and always very good to me. He had a wonderful sense of humour, always telling jokes and, worse than that, he was a great punster. He also had a serious side and was an excellent student. When he was quite small he had rheumatic fever which I believe affected his heart. Sometimes when he fell asleep on the “lounge” in the dining room, he would waken with bad dreams and make a lot of strange noises that frightened me.
Bill was the one of all my siblings who often tried to boost my self-esteem. I remember him trying to persuade our father to enroll me in university, something not many girls aspired to around 1914. Father got quite angry because Bill was trying to tell him to do something he couldn’t afford and thought unnecessary. Bill got frustrated and started to cry. I never forgot that moment and my admiration and affection for Bill knew no bounds after that.
Bill had a lovely baritone voice and used to practice classics. He took piano lessons, as we all did. One time he had a great urge to learn to play “The Star Spangled Banner”, and was doing quite well with it but ignoring his other assigned pieces. One of our sisters told Miss Staples, our piano teacher that all he played was “The Star Spangled Banner”, so she took Bill to task for this and forbid him to play it.

Bill got his High School Matriculation with honours and enrolled at Victoria College in Toronto in the class of 1T5, meaning if all went well he would graduate in 1915. While at Vic, Bill joined a great many extra-curricular activities such as the Men’s Glee club, a select quartet, and the Drama Club. The Glee Club even toured Great Britain, which was a big deal at that time.

The friends Bill brought home were delightful fellows. Their laughter and excitement thrilled me through and through. By the time Bill graduated in 1915, the First Great War was in full swing and he was itching to enlist and “do his bit” to help. He had a suspicion that he might not pass the physical exam because of his rheumatic heart, so he employed a few tricks to confuse the medical examiners. He passed and enlisted in the Imperial Army who was looking for college graduates to train as officers. Bill took his training at Oxford where he reveled in its tradition. He came out as a Second Lieutenant and assigned to Artillery (Canadian Expeditionary Force, Royal Field Artillery) where he had to ride a horse. He was lucky he’s learned to ride on dear old Prince in Teeswater.

Bill was sent to France as a Forward Observation Officer who went ahead, made a dugout, then with a phone gave directions as to how many degrees left or right, high or low, the big guns should be swung to the gunners. He went through the bloodiest, most awful battles of the war and during the 3rd Battle of Ypres, around August 18, 1917, collapsed and was taken to hospital in England. I have a letter he wrote from there in which he describes the hospital as a “mini-paradise”. He was sent home in April 1920 with a badly damaged heart. I don’t have the space to describe the events leading to his collapse or to quote from his letter, but the letter is available to anyone who wants to read it.
Bill came home broken physically and very depressed. As a result of his condition, he was refused admission to Theological College, thus dashing his dream of becoming a Methodist Minister. He was advised neither to run, hurry upstairs, walk against the wind, up hills nor to crank a car. He was on a 100% Disability Pension from the British Government, though it wasn’t much.
Around this time a woman named Anna Maud Hallam came to Toronto to lecture on Practical Psychology. She had a lot of new ideas and after Bill took her course, his attitude really changed and he found a great deal of courage. He decided if he was at death’s door, he might as well make the most of every day he was alive. Mother worried a lot about his breaking doctor’s rules, but Bill’s motto became: “A short life, but a merry one!” He bought a big old high second-hand car and called it “Diana of the Ephesians”. I don’t remember the make and no one’s left to ask.
One day Bill saw an ad in the paper asking for someone to organize an Optimist Club of Canada. He got the job and after a great deal of effort and contacting some very important people, the Inaugural Ball for the first Optimist Club in Canada was held in Toronto on August 18, 1924. Two of the original charter members are still alive in 1980. Bill and Harold Skilling were both charter members. Later he organized several more Optimist Clubs.
In 1933 Bill went to the World’s Fair in Chicago and made a point of looking up some radio characters he’d been listening to and corresponding with. He returned to Toronto and got a chance to sing and act in several radio dramas.
Bill’s life was very full and he always wanted the rest of the family to enjoy the things he enjoyed. He worked very hard until one day he had a stroke. He was taken to Christie Street Hospital, unable to speak and quite paralyzed on his right side. He refused to allow us to treat him like a basket case. He pushed a jug saw puzzle I brought him to the floor. The first word he taught himself to say, without moving his lips, was “water” because although people would offer him food, the bedpan, or back rubs, no one ever offered him a drink. He regained his power of speech but sometimes the word he intended to say would come out wrong. Then he would laugh heartily. Eventually, he could do a lot of things; but one day, he overdid himself, and on November 7, 1933 passed away.
Bill's passing left a great blank space in our family and we all felt, as my mother did, that a part of us was gone. Bill was a truly great individual. It staggers one’s imagination to think of the good this man might have done in this world, had it not been for the war which cut down the best young men in the flower of their manhood.

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