A good life

Posted: March 10, 2017 at 9:00 am   /   by   /   comments (2)

Bill Wightman understood the innate decency of his fellow humans, particularly as individuals. His life spanned an era of human history that had surely tested that faith. Yet in his language, discourse, impeccable manners and ever-present humour, Bill exemplified decency. He engaged in all aspects of life—from negotiations with the trade emissary sitting across the table from him at the United Nations in Geneva, or to the counterperson presenting him his newspapers each morning—treating those he encountered with dignity, respect and politeness. It was more than habit, or good upbringing. Decency, for Bill, was the expression of a belief that we all share this journey, and that it is much more pleasing when we enjoy each other’s company.

Bill, with classmates Barb and Frank Richards at a gathering of Clarkson alumni in Potsdam, New York in 2016.

He had seen the brutality of personality, the barbarity of unfettered power and the suffocating effects of dogma. He recognized the ugliness of politics that seems new and unprecedented to younger eyes. He knew what humans could do to one another—yet he had trust, too, that our better nature would persevere and would always rise, in time, above prejudice, ignorance and fear.

Bill had much less faith in the organizations and institutions our species construct to put order in the way we interact with one another. His career had been immersed in such manmade structures, formed in good faith and with the best of intentions. But he had often seen them become tangled and warped to serve the powerful. He saw too often institutions casting a pall across a complacent population. Indifferent. Self-satisfied. The opposite of decency.

Bill always rose to his feet and extended his hand when a woman approached or entered the room. It was, at times an awkward, misunderstood gesture, seemingly an artefact of another era. But it was, for Bill and those around him, a subtle reminder that casual conversation should be interrupted ever so briefly in greeting another human being—that the words swirling around the room could be suspended in midair momentarily to recognize a fellow traveller. It wasn’t formality so much as a way to demonstrate that you mattered to him.

That there isn’t an industrial wind turbine spinning over Prince Edward County is largely attributable to Bill’s ability to coalesce like-minded folks and work with them, patiently, diligently toward a political end. While others believed economics or better understanding of physics and nature would eventually topple a parasitic industry built on subsidies and delivering marginal value, Bill knew that government ideology would prevail—that only a shift in political will would end bad policy. But that would take time.

The first battle was waged in Hillier nearly 20 years ago. Council had approved a project that would have seen a half-dozen massive turbines rise on a ridge between Pleasant and Huyck’s Bay. Bill along with others including Scott Brown, Mcrae Danford, Bob Cluett, Jim Taylor and Vic Alyea, successfully persuaded council to reconsider and ultimately, reject the plan. The fight then moved to Royal Road in South Marysburgh. Bill put his name on an Ontario Municipal Board challenge that resulted in a stalemate. When the Green Energy Act was made law in Ontario, overnight the traditional means by which individuals and communities resisted bad development had been taken away.

Yet Bill continued working with a growing assortment of groups and organizations rising to resist the destructive policy—in Sophiasburgh and Big Island, at Ostrander Point, from Milford to Long Point.

He gave his time, his money and his negotiating expertise to this cause. But perhaps his greatest contribution was the grace and decency with which he conducted himself during these political battles. For he knew well that passions run deep on both sides of the issue. He knew it was easy for someone whose livelihood or landscape was threatened, to respond badly to those who believed that these machines planted into the rural landscape, paved a path toward the salvation of the planet.

Bill encouraged those around him to be measured in response to and respectful of countering points of view—not because he believed they would be converted by a set of cogent arguments, but rather because we all have to live with one another when the battle is finished. He was thinking about reconciliation before the fight had begun.

He enjoyed his life with people—serving them for a short time as a legislator, adjudicating labour disputes, shaping policy, lubricating trade relations and working with others to tame the grey amorphous beast of government.

He was a conservative in a traditional sense. He had a healthy mistrust of big government—big anything really. He believed in releasing the creativity of the individual and levering the agility of a free market to improve the lot of others. Yet he understood, indeed he immersed himself in government and institutional structures—knowing instinctively that regulatory protections and a common set of rules was needed not only to protect the disadvantaged, but as well to break down walls or barriers between folks who see the world differently.

Bill’s highest profile career stint was as a member of Joe Clark’s ill-fated minority government in 1979, that fell just nine months after being elected to office. Bill had every right to feel embittered by the experience— particularly by Clark’s well-documented political ineptitude. But if Bill ever felt that way—he never said it. He never even hinted at it despite the financial loss this adventure had cost him. Instead he spoke about the great friendships he formed in those few months on both sides of the aisle. Some, like that with Lincoln Alexander, would span their remaining days.

Bill’s life was defined by his decency. He walked this earth with grace and a smile. He leaves it with many friends whose lives are now a bit diminshed by his passing. He will remain an inspiration.

Comments (2)

  • March 11, 2017 at 3:22 pm Mike Batty

    My small experience with Bill dates back to the mid-1980’s, and a hearing with the Ontario Labour Relations Board in Kapuskasing, Ontario. The issue was a jurisdictional dispute between rival unions. The resulting OLRB hearing had 3 members; a chairman, a labour rep, and a management rep, who was Bill. I was the Company management rep.
    The hearings carried on for months on end, with the OLRB and the various lawyers flying to Kap and back to Toronto on a weekly basis. I got to know Bill a little, but it was all on a professional footing, albeit flavoured by Bill’s perspective and humour. But it didn’t take Bill long to find the local Legion. Soon after he asked me if I knew a local Legion Member, one Scrappy Richardson. Now, I knew Scrappy only by reputation, but understood that he had suffered a bit through life, and now spent a lot of time in the Legion Hall, possibly too much. At any rate, Bill somehow determined that Scrappy had lost his military medals at some point. With no fanfare, and no announcement Bill somehow twisted arms somewhere and miraculously a new set of replacement medals arrived at the Legion for Scrappy. I doubt anyone would have known about it if it had not been just a little Legion in a remote little town.
    And when I arrived in PEC 20 years later, Bill picked me out of a crowd and greeted me. Pretty Good, I would say.

  • March 10, 2017 at 9:55 pm Ian Inrig

    Excellent, Rick. Thanks
    Ian Inrig

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