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Below are the five obits for Obit writer D
Obit #1: Billy Meek
Like a Boy Scout, Billy Meek, who died in Toronto on June 11 of cancer at the age of 86, was always prepared for the one inevitable question that every kilt-wearing Scotsman faces in his life: What is worn beneath the tartan? “It depends on the weather,” was Meek's standard retort. The spicier one, usually accompanied by a grin and a wink, was, “There's nothing worn under the kilt. Everything is in perfect working order.”
A crowd-pleasing journeyman comedian for most of his life, the irrepressible Meek milked everything Scottish for laughs – kilts, haggis, bagpipes, the Loch Ness Monster – all buttered with a working-class Edinburgh brogue that he had to work to maintain the longer he lived in Canada.
He was a master of the bygone art of gentle humour, with a story, some music and maybe a kilt-flapping jig thrown in. “He worked at a time when entertainers had to be multitalented,” recalled Nancy Higgins, a long time friend who toured with Meek as an accordion player, who also sang and danced. “So he could sing a song, dance, play instruments, and tell a joke. Boy, could he tell a joke!”
It wasn't so much the jokes, good-naturedly dubbed by one critic as “the oldest, most cobweb-covered gags I've ever heard anyone get away with in public,” as their timing. In one non-verbal bit, Meek would play a demanding Scottish tune on a set of miniature bagpipes. After the oohs and ahs and applause died down, he would turn, walk back a few feet, take the pipes off, and return to the microphone. Following a perfect pause, the obviously wired-up instrument would continue playing on its own. Crowds would roar.
He couldn't play a note on actual bagpipes but he did master the banjo, ukulele, soprano saxophone and miniature concertina. “All banjo players play The World is Waiting for the Sunrise,” he would quip while cradling the instrument on stage. “But I'd like to play The Flight of the Bumblebee.” (Pause for anticipation). “I'd like to, but I can't.”
Meek's chief claim to fame was as a regular on the CTV show The Pig and Whistle, which ran from 1967 to 1977, making it one of Canada's longest running variety television programs. Meek was the “jolly kilted Scot” on the show, set in a friendly English pub, but filmed in Toronto. Aside from his usual musical and comedic offerings, he played the guy who was always scrounging for a free drink. The bit did little to dampen the stereotype of the stingy Scot, but audiences found it sweetly funny.
Also appealing were his earnest renditions of such classic Scottish songs as I Belong to Glasgow and Leaning on a Lamp Post. His best were recorded on two records, The Irrepressible Billy Meek and The Jovial Scot.
William George Meek was “born quite young,” as he cracked, in Edinburgh on Sept. 5, 1923, into a show business family. By the time he was 14, young Billy was touring the music halls of Scotland and England with his father William and older sister Cathie as The Three Bright Sparks, doing two nightly shows of music and comedy and working with the biggest singer-comedians of the day, including Gracie Fields and George Formby. Billy's mother, Catherine, made the costumes and handled bookings. To evade child labour laws, Billy sported a fake mustache on stage.
His talents may have saved his life when war came. He was among some new recruits who were asked if anyone had an entertainment background for Ladies Night in the Sergeant's mess. Meek stepped forward and soon came to the attention of the storied Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders regiment, which needed musicians and comics to boost troop morale.
“The government decided Hitler wasn't scared of me,” he told an interviewer once. “So I was put into the band.” For the next four-and-a-half years, he played clarinet and cymbals in the regimental band, and was principal comedian in the Highlanders' travelling show in liberated Germany in 1945.
Sensing that the era of music halls was coming to an end in Great Britain, the family decided to join relatives in Toronto. The senior Meeks sold their grocery store, a much-needed sideline, and Billy cancelled a 20-week contract in Edinburgh. They arrived in a place with no music halls at all.
His parents adapted, establishing themselves as puppeteers, but “I dinna ken which way to turn,” Meek lamented, and he took a job as a sales clerk at Eatons. To the rescue came CBC Radio's Opportunity Knocks, a national talent show he won in 1948 by singing I'm Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover while playing ukulele. It wasn't especially original, but it was adjudged fresh and bright. The grand prize was a 13-week summer run as co-host of a radio show.
Bookings poured in: Toronto's Royal York and King Edward hotels, the Granite Club, and countless special events across southern Ontario and a few in the United States. In 1955, the federal government asked Meek to organize a variety show and take it to Japan and Korea to entertain English-speaking troops. He took along Canadian dance act Dennis and Maxine and comedian Norma Davis. The soldiers were a good crowd. “They were starving for laughter,” Meek said years later.
He never looked back, and the work was steady for at least the next 30 years, with conventions, country fairs, appearances on The Tommy Hunter Show, and opening for acts like British singer Vera Lynn at Maple Leaf Gardens before 15,000 fans. His mother still handled bookings until her death.
Hunter recalled Meek as “a show stopper. Many of today's young performers could have learned a lot from the hard work he put into his craft.”
As standup comedy generally coarsened, Meek stuck to a wholesome brand of humour that was never demeaning or profane.
One routine was to pluck children from the audience, bring them on stage, pull an oversized Tam o'Shanter beret over their heads, and join them on the concertina.
It was a surefire bit, though one time, an ill-tempered eight-year-old boy not only tore the cap off, but threatened to belt Meek. In its way, that, too, was funny.
“Billy on stage in the first two minutes: slow, modulated, smooth,” enthused a magazine profile from the late 1970s, stuck into a bulging scrapbook of clippings. “After the first jokes go well, he allows himself a huge grin. He has a good body for this job, slender and agile. His hands are great. Long and equipped with prehensile fingers that, when he gesticulates or plays the banjo, seem to extend again for another length. He's a very dark Edinburgh man, with deep-set bouncing brown eyes. The grin is wide and spontaneous. On stage or in person, it's almost impossible not to respond to Billy's smile.”
He returned to Scotland in 1977 for a visit, and rued the replacement of music halls with bingo parlours. Besides, he said, since everyone sounded like him, “I'd never be able to make a living here.”
Meek never married or had children. His friends freely concede the cliché that he lived only to entertain, as he did too. “Entertaining's my job. That's when I'm happy. Aye, but it's a grand feeling.”
Obit #2: Denis Simpson
Denis Simpson was a one-man entertainment machine. Actor, singer, dancer, director, TV host and writer, he glided effortlessly from the groovy vibes of Hair, to the satiny tones of the a cappella group The Nylons, to the hearts of children who shyly approached him on the street for an autograph.
Simpson, who died of a brain hemorrhage Oct. 22 in Toronto two weeks short of his 60th birthday, shocking many in the arts community, was a beloved and respected performer, and a restless journeyman who couldn't stay in one place long.
Rail-thin, lanky and sporting a perpetual smile, his breakthrough came in the early 1970s as Simon in the original Broadway production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Crisscrossing Canada, but based mainly in his adopted hometown of Vancouver, his credits over the years included the first Toronto staging of Hair, followed by prominent roles in The Full Monty, Five Guys Named Moe, Driving Miss Daisy, Angels In America, and Ain't Bisbehavin' (for which he won a Dora Mavor Moore Award). He played no less than Jesus in Godspell.
Television appearances included MacGyver, Seeing Things, Robson Arms, and a Canadian game show called Acting Crazy. For a time, he hosted the Live Eye segments on Vancouver Citytv's Breakfast Television and also hosted a cooking show on Channel M called Café m.
But doubtless his best-known turns were as an original vocalist for the sublimely smooth Nylons and as one of the first regular black faces on Canadian television. He co-hosted TVOntario's celebrated children's show, Polka Dot Door, which ended a 22-year-run in 1993.
“He's sort of skinny, his eyes are too big, and he's black – not what one would assume as attributes for a television celebrity in Canada,” noted The Globe and Mail in 1984. “Yet for thousands of youngsters, Denis Simpson and TVOntario's Polka Dot Door are the highlights of their day. He sings, he dances and talks to those stuffed animals – and the kids love him for it.”
His stint as a founder of The Nylons was short but pivotal, recalled Claude Morrison, who helped form the wildly successful a cappella group in the late 1970s. The two met while working as singing waiters at a Toronto eatery popular among theatre types.
“It was a crucial 2 1/2 months,” Morrison recalled. “We would never have gotten off the ground if it weren't for Denis because of his generosity of spirit and can-do attitude. He just said, ‘Yeah we can do it. That'll be fun.' He lit up the stage.”
Like the other two Nylons originals, Paul Cooper and Mark Connors, Simpson and Morrison were “resting” (theatre talk for un- or under-employed) and itching to start something new. None could play an instrument but as the group's website says, “Dammit, they sure could sing.”
Though a velvety baritone, Simpson sang bass, but he left before the group's debut album. “He was doing Indigo with Salome Bey,” Morrison recalled. “He was the only of us who was actually working. He left because it looked like how was going to Broadway, but it didn't.”
Reams of online condolences from fellow artists and friends have paid tribute to a warm, kind, funny and giving man; a meticulous craftsman who never took himself too seriously.
Dennis Anthony Leopold Simpson (he later dropped an “n” from his first name) was born in St. Ann's Bay on Jamaica's north shore on Nov. 4, 1950. “Upon hearing my mother sing in church at the age of three, I think that's when the bug bit me,” he told Who's Who in Black Canada.com in August. “I also remember seeing and hearing the preacher, and wanted to be a preacher.”
The clan moved to Toronto's east-end Scarborough district when Denis was 10. He studied music, dance and theatre at York University for one year. “He chose to do it instead of learning about it,” said his half-sister, Gloria Reuben, herself an accomplished singer and actress. Simpson's pace was legendarily brutal. “Time off was not on his radar,” she recounted with a sad chuckle. “He was always working.”
His stint on Polka Dot Door, from 1978 to the mid-1980s, made him, but uncharacteristically, he sounded a bit chagrined about it.
“Professionally,” he explained to The Globe in 1984, “Polka Dot Door has put me on the map. People know who I am. Personally, it has given me satisfaction in that I have given other people satisfaction. Kids have liked me and have learned from what I'm doing. Little kids have learned to speak and to tell time from what I've done. If I can do that – hallelujah! I don't put the show down, by any means. I have done something worthwhile.”
But the responsibility of being a role model to children created a sense of frustration.
“A lot of people don't realize that we are actors,” he said. “Letters have come into the station – one of the hostesses has done commercials for Tampax – and parents write in complaining that they won't let their children watch the show. I mean, we're actors. We have to pay the rent. I don't want to become just another kiddie show host if I can't go out and have a beer and be silly …
“It was just a job – what it has become is a whole other thing. I didn't realize it would be such a cult.”
His work garnered numerous awards. Apart from the 1983 Dora for Ain't Misbehavin', he won a Pioneer award from the Canadian Black Music Association for raising the profile of black performers in Canada – though Simpson jokingly said that his greatest fear “is becoming a titch too white for my ancestors' liking.”
(For the musical Ruthless, he played a white woman, Sylvia St. Croix. As director David Jones told the publication Xtra, somewhat cryptically, “he didn't play her white.”)
Simpson received a Jessie Award for Denis Anyone?, a 1996 one-man show he wrote, and he directed the critically acclaimed 2009 Fringe show NGGRFG starring Berend McKenzie. His most recent Vancouver performance was this past May to July in Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story.
“He would just take the audience into his embrace,” Bill Millerd, artistic managing director of the Artsclub Theatre Company, told the Georgia Straight newspaper. “Really, that was his personality. He embraced people and was one of those just very open, honest, performers. … He was just one of those dynamic forces that suddenly are gone.”
In an online posting, fellow actor Jay Brazeau recalled Simpson as “the funniest one in the pack. I can't even begin to remember the number of times I had to stuff a pillow in my mouth backstage to prevent the audience from hearing the guffaws.”
Simpson recently finished his last work, STRUCK!, a play about his recovery from a stroke a few years ago, and was trying to write a solo piece based on the life and works of author James Baldwin.
His did charitable work for St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver and for A Loving Spoonful, which provides free meals to people living with HIV/AIDS in Greater Vancouver.
At the time of his death, he was rehearsing for A Year with Frog and Toad, a holiday musical at the Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People. The piece was to combine his love of musicals and performing for children.
He leaves his mother, Pearl, stepmother Merle, and siblings Douglas, Rosemarie, Kathleen, Lennox and Gloria Reuben.
As for that cooking show: “I once asked Denis, ‘What do you know about cooking?'” remembered Nylons co-founder Morrison. “He just shrugged and laughed.”
Obit #3: Alfred (Fred) Huffman
Shipbuilding was alive and well in Toronto and later, Port Hope, Ont., under the gifted hands and eyes of Alfred (Fred) Huffman. Combining a machinist's precision, an artist's flair and the patience of Job, Huffman was doubtless Canada's premier builder of model ships.
These were not assembled from plastic kits bought at a toy or hobby shop, but scaled down works of art, handcrafted from scratch, painstakingly researched and constructed, and accurate, with a near-fanatical devotion, down to the last plank and rung. He could shrink a 60-foot off-shore cruiser to a 30-inch model and keep every detail intact.
“In effect,” Huffman would point out, “you're building a ship.”
The results were museum-quality replicas that adorn corporate offices, yacht clubs, museums and shipbuilding companies. Most of the 100 or so models Huffman built over the last 32 years, though, were commissions from private collectors.
His career took off in 1981, when Royal Canadian Yacht Club member Frederick Eaton, of department store fame, ordered a Huffman model of his sailboat. Impressed with the result, fellow club member Gordon Fisher, the late chairman of Southam Inc., commissioned two replicas of his 30-foot Nonsuch sailboat. And when veteran television anchorman Harvey Kirk retired from CTV News in 1984, the network presented him with a Huffman model of Kirk's pride and joy, his 40-foot yacht, Fair Passage.
But the most challenging orders came from financier Conrad Black.
An avid military historian, Black wanted a scale model of the Second World War battleship USS Iowa. Since the plans for the ship were locked in the bowels of the Pentagon, Huffman turned to a contact who provided him with drawings of the Iowa's sister ship, the USS New Jersey. Huffman then researched the differences and incorporated his findings into the work.
At three feet long, the Iowa was 1/300th the original size. It took 41/2 months to complete and cost $30,000. It also showcased, as perhaps no other Huffman model, his attention to detail: The railing around the main deck of the battleship was only an eighth of an inch high, yet clearly visible were four hair-like strands of cable that made up the fencing.
Other major projects were replicas of the battleship Bismark and the passenger liner Rex, the latter also a Black order, which took more than a year to complete.
“He certainly was one of the top people in the field,” said Michael Wall, director of the American Marine Model Gallery in Gloucester, Mass., which bought eight of Huffman's ships over the years. “He was very diligent and detail oriented.”
Among just a handful of professional model builders in Canada, Huffman summed up his lost craft in one simple dictum: “The more the detail, the more fun. Each model is an accumulation of detail.”
A full beard and gold rimmed glasses helped create his owlish visage. “When he speaks his voice is gentle and filled with patience – the type of patience necessary in a man who works with the smallest bits and pieces to create major works of art,” related a 1986 profile in Sailing Canada magazine.
Huffman, who died in Port Hope on May 12 of bone cancer at the age of 70, built models of sailboats, steamers, battleships, patrol and cargo vessels, yachts and sailboats. For the Canadian Coast Guard, he built a 40-inch long, $12,000 replica of the $50-million icebreaker, Des Groseilliers.
“You're creating a kind of three-dimensional illustration for posterity,” he explained. “Given ideal conditions, the model will probably outlive the prototype.”
But he often laboured under the nagging image of the model maker as the lonely, cardigan-clad man who builds ships inside glass bottles. Asked whether he made any of those, Huffman's son, Christian, replied, “I have to say that this would be the one question that would infuriate my father. No, he did not. A ship in a bottle was folk art to him. It was this ignorance that would hurt my father and belittled his craft.
“The time and attention he poured over these models, including the simplest of sailboats, was profound and sometimes emotionally draining. When my father delivered a model, he always felt he was handing over his child.”
Fred Huffman was born in Toronto on Dec. 2, 1939, to Marjory Wright and Alfred Hayter, a Newfoundlander who died when Fred was 3. His mother remarried Eugene Huffman, and the clan moved to the senior Huffman's hometown, Windsor.
Fred was a youngster when he made and flew his own model airplanes, and got involved in rocketry. “He made his own gunpowder in his parents' basement,” said his wife, Joan, with a chuckle. “He accidentally set fire to a field during one of his experiments with rockets.”
He dropped out of high school to apprentice as a tool and die maker at an engineering firm. Among the company's customers was AMT Corp., a plastic model company that made kits for everything from stock cars to complex sailing ships. Impressed with the young man's talents, AMT lured him to its research and development office in Troy, Mich.
A U.S. draft notice in 1963 precipitated his return to Canada. Seeing little market for model making, he turned to graphic arts. He was a book designer at McGraw Hill and later, art director at Oxford University Press. A year-long sabbatical in Grenada in 1972 sweetened his love of sailboats.
He moved to Port Hope in 1975 and three years later, returned full-time to his first love, model building, augmenting his income by making architectural models. His first commissions were replica war planes for a Toronto restaurant.
For any model, he spurned pre-fabricated kits, instead studying blueprints, original plans, photos and other references. “That can be the most difficult aspect of the project,” he explained. “The model is only as good as the documentation.” If he could, he would go to see a boat to look it over and photograph it from every angle.
He would begin by creating a set of drawings, never working above a scale of a half-inch to the foot. The models started out as planks of basswood, a soft wood ideal for shaping the hull (the grain on some other woods was out of scale). Next, he used the bread-and-butter method to sandwich the pieces together, creating a layered effect. The hull was always left hollow to reduce warping, and depending on the period of the replica, painted with a matte finish or lacquered to a high gloss.
The same attention was lavished on the deck and finishings, for which he employed fibreglass, acrylics, styrenes and boatloads of Krazy Glue. Any interiors visible through open hatches or companionways were fully detailed, down to the tiny lifeboats and portholes.
Using a delicate jeweller's lathe, he handcrafted every brass winch, cleat and davit. For more modern electronic parts, such as radar masts and screens, he would draw a flattened image reproduced in beryllium copper, made with a photo-etching method he'd learned in his graphic arts days, then bend it into shape.
He became a pack rat, hoarding bits and pieces of what others would consider junk. Pin heads were used as bolts; heavy-gauge, brass piano wire substituted for railings; hypodermic syringes doubled for stainless steel tubing on decks and superstructures. Wee loops of waxed linen string reproduced rigging.
He fashioned everything but sails, believing a full rigging of canvas made the model look like a toy. If a client insisted, Huffman would neatly fold sails under a miniature sail cover.
He would spend 10 weeks on a powerboat and 12 weeks, often more, on an icebreaker, battleship or large commercial vessel. Self-critical, he was always aware of things he could improve. “Past a certain point,” he noted, “you're no longer building for the client – you're building for other professional model makers. You know they're not going to excuse any shortcuts.
“I want my work to impress the purists as well as the clients.”
He also acquired the discipline to walk away from a project if it didn't measure up. “If you don't, you're likely to throw it across the room,” he once told the Financial Post.
Ten of his models are still on display at the Royal Canadian Yacht Club in Toronto. “In recent years we used him to refurbish and repair the many models we have that get damaged or just old,” noted club archivist Diane Blake. “He told me that it was becoming difficult to find the small pieces that he used.”
Also becoming difficult was his ability to see. In later years, his deteriorating sight meant a slower pace, and about three years ago, he had cataract surgery.
His son has an especially fond memory of Career Day at his junior high school. His father's scheduled 20-minute talk “turned into two hours of riveting information about models and the impact on art, engineering architecture, science and popular culture. The accountant waiting to speak was told to come back the next day.”
As for real boats, Huffman enjoyed sailing and racing in them, but he never owned one.
Alfred Edward (Fred) Huffman leaves his wife Joan Sirr, son Christian, sister Linda, and recently discovered relations in the Hayter family.
Obit #4: Jack McGillivray
Jack McGillivray obsessed about weight. Not his own – he was tall and kept a slender frame – but about the model airplanes he built and flew to soaring standards. As one of Canada's winningest competitive model aviators, he was part of a small group of fanatical devotees who build nearly everything by hand, with each component painstakingly crafted, weighed, tested on the bench and in the air, trimmed back, and weighed again.
The result, at least in one of the competition categories in which McGillivray excelled, was a plane he built with a 26-inch wingspan that registered at barely one gram, or less than half the weight of a penny.
In a sport in which success is measured in such Lilliputian increments, McGillivray was no mere hobbyist but a combination of engineer, artist, geek and wizard. He was so detail-oriented, said his long-time friend and co-competitor Roy Bourke, that he would weigh every block of ultra-light balsa wood and calculate its density before approving it for construction. Each crucial component was subjected to exacting engineering tests and mathematical formulas to ascertain elasticity and load-bearing ability. The specialized long rubber strands that powered some of his models were analyzed for their stretch ratio and specific energy.
“Jack would say, ‘Only nothing weighs nothing.' If a plane had pilots' seats, he even hollowed those out,” Bourke said. “He enjoyed flying but he also enjoyed getting the maximum performance from his airplanes.”
McGillivray, who died in Toronto on Aug. 19 of cancer at the age of 75, was internationally recognized and admired in the little-known sport of model aviation. He excelled in 11 different classes, notably in the various categories of free flight; broke 49 Canadian indoor free flight records, nine of which still stand; racked up some 500 overall victories indoors and out; and was three-time U.S. Indoor Champion in competitions that drew modellers from around the world.
He built and flew model airplanes for 60 years and represented Canada at 24 world championships – more than any Canadian – held around the globe every other year by the international governing body of aircraft competition of all types, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI). In individual events at the Worlds, McGillivray placed in the top 10 seven times and came third the first time he took part, in 1959.
“He was the best overall flyer Canada has ever seen,” fellow modeller John Marett stated emphatically. “No question about it. Everyone knew him. He was extraordinarily talented [but] he never went after records, particularly, unless they happened.”
And they happened a lot. McGillivray was the first Canadian to fly any craft indoors for 40 minutes. In 1996, in a hand launch category, his ultra-light plane made of gossamer-like tissue from Japan and balsa wood sheets sliced to a thinness of 1-64th of an inch, glided for 41 minutes, six seconds, a record that holds still. In another milestone still on the books, a McGillivray creation made with super-thin microfilm, a material that was considered dangerous to work with, stayed aloft for 45 minutes and 57 seconds in a covered football stadium in Moscow, Idaho.
What was his secret? “I don't know any secrets,” the humble craftsman confided to a meeting of modellers in New York in 1991. “Lightness is really just what you put in. If you don't put very much in, it's light.” Other flyers kidded him about helium-filled balsa, but the truth was, as one put it, “he just uses less balsa than the rest of us.”
In an online posting, one rival recalls kidding McGillivray (“what an idiot I was”) about exercising psychological warfare at a 1984 Flying Aces Club competition by installing a device on a Sea Hornet that popped up the tail in order to bring it down safely. “My jaw dropped open and dragged in the grass for the rest of the day as I watched that thing fly for two minutes and come floating down with the tail popped up on the next flight. [McGillivray] just grinned. I respectfully kept my mouth shut as I watched him wind and fly from then on.”
Apart from the joys of building and flying these miniature works of art and the many friends and fans it won him around the world, McGillivray led a rather quiet life. He was born in Toronto on May 1, 1935, the only child of Olive and Richard McGillivray. His father was an inveterate tinkerer and a salesman who supplied high-capacity laundry equipment to dry cleaners, hotels and hospitals. Jack was around seven when he flew his first miniature plane. He never looked back.
To fund his avocation, he worked for more than 30 years as a product designer for The John Wood Co., which manufactures boilers and liquid storage tanks, until he took early retirement when the company was sold to U.S. interests. After his parents died, he lived in the same east-end Toronto home for more than 40 years. Moving his massive basement workshop, with its lathes, saws and specialized machinery, seemed unthinkable. He never married and had no children.
Like his fellow flyers, McGillivray liked to point out that model aircraft predated the Wright brothers' historic 12-second flight in 1903 by decades. Of course, the Chinese have been flying kites for centuries and Leonardo da Vinci designed a helicopter. But in 1871 in Paris, a young experimenter named Alphonse Pénaud used a twisted rubber band to power his “planophore” a distance of 181 feet. Pénaud is the modelling world's Orville and Wilbur Wright.
McGillivray was considered a leader in rubber-powered models in both main indoor classes, Endurance, in which planes are built to fly as long as possible, and Scale. The Endurance types, as Bourke explains, are basic and as light as the rules allow. They are covered with a very light transparent film and must weigh at least 1.2 grams.
As the name implies, Scale class involves replicas that are judged not only for flying ability but their fidelity to the full-scale aircraft they represent. These are built from balsa wood, covered with ultra-light tissue and detailed with paint. But the builder must strike a balance between detail, which adds weight, and flight performance. “Jack was very good at reaching the optimum compromise,” Bourke said.
“Oh, these were beautiful, beautiful airplanes,” said Marett.
In outdoor categories, McGillivray flew electric and gas-powered planes but his specialty was the rubber-powered Wakefield category, a class of larger planes that began in 1928. As with other aficionados of rubber, he kept meticulous notes on the number of turns a particular length would take for optimal performance. These are not rubber bands bought at an office supply store, but specially made strands that are stretched, tested and cut. Flyers lubricate them, and recipes for lubricants are guarded like atomic secrets.
McGillivray pioneered the adaption of radios from toy cars for use in airplanes, and he flew indoor radio-controlled models just for fun. For outdoors, he invented a mechanism that tucked a motorized plane's wings in on ascent, rocketing it further in altitude, then snapped the wings out on descent to give it extra flying time.
He flew free gliders, which are released from a 50-metre towline and must ride the thermal updrafts for three minutes in competition. He came up with a radio-controlled model he dubbed “The Gym Jogger.” With a 39-inch-span, it weighed just 42 grams and floated so lazily in the air, a person could jog slowly beside it. And in 1990, he flew an ornithopter, a contraption that actually flapped its multiple wings for a record five minutes, 22 seconds.
In 1993, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the national governing body for model aviation in Canada, the Model Aeronautics Association of Canada (MAAC), which tallies 11,500 members. At the time of his death, he was president of the Markham Indoor Flyers.
Bourke noted ruefully that the task at hand is to figure out what to do with McGillivray's creations and hundreds of trophies.
John (Jack) Richard McGillivray is survived by his aunt, Jean Kirkpatrick; his friend and companion of 17 years, Elma Rajnauth; an extended family; and many fans and protégés around the world.
Obit #5: William Black
William Black saw himself as a simple merchant, a third-generation one at that. He fit the bill: Direct, hardworking and pragmatic, yet humble and thrifty. He clipped coupons from newspapers. Mr. Black, with his brothers Robert (Bob), Barry, Bruce and sister Barbara, built a Canadian success story with their eponymous chain of camera and photofinishing stores, and transformed industry standards back when customers had to wait for their pictures to be developed.
A high school dropout, William Black presided over a family retail empire that grew to 100 Black's Photography outlets across Canada by the time the company was sold in 1985 for $100-million. His persona is perhaps best exemplified by the title of his unpublished memoirs: The Luckiest Person I Know: Me!
He learned business skills at the knee of his headstrong grandmother, Blanche Black, who with her husband Freddy owned and operated Black's Forest Hill Market, opened in 1914. The clan lived above the store. But their son Eddie – William's father – wasn't much interested in the grocery business. His hobby was making radios. So in 1930, with $500 borrowed from his parents, Eddie opened Eddie Black's Ltd. at Yonge Street and St. Clair Avenue in Toronto. Despite the Depression, he was able to broaden his radio business to include electrical appliances. A handsome man with personality to spare, he built a loyal clientele.
William, the eldest of his five children, recognized the store's founding as a pivotal event in his life: “It was my father who laid the foundation for my brothers and me to become recognized as leaders in the retail photography business,” he would recount.
Business progressed nicely until the Second World War, when factories had to retool for war production. But the quick-thinking Eddie hit on an idea. A visit by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth was approaching in 1939, and he realized the public was suddenly hungry for cameras. He added a few to the store and they quickly sold out. So he added more, and they sold too.
Meantime, the war-time shortage of young men led William to a program of working for a farmer in exchange for being promoted to the next grade. His job, starting at 5 a.m., was to remove a 10-foot high by 10-foot wide pile of manure from a pigpen with only a pitchfork, shovel and wheelbarrow. No surprise that he hated it, but “I just passed gym, math class and social studies,” he reasoned. “Not a bad trade after all.”
Two years later, he dropped out of high school to work fulltime for his grandparents. These were grueling, 16-hour days starting at dawn with visits to the St. Lawrence Market to buy that day's fresh fruits and vegetables. Then he would help the butcher prepare the meat orders and fill telephone orders for delivery after 4 p.m. Evenings were spent cleaning the store. Often, he would fall asleep on his grandmother's couch upstairs. That year, he lost 25 pounds, but learned discipline and fortitude.
The grocery was sold in 1942, clearing the way for William to join the Royal Canadian Air Force, stationed in Quebec. He later transferred to the navy, helping to decommission warships in Halifax.
While a sailor, he tried out for the naval hockey team as a goaltender. On his first scrimmage, Gaye Stewart, a fearsome left-winger for the Toronto Leafs, ripped a slapshot on net. “I woke up to my next conscious moment in the hospital with a broken and wired-shut jaw,” Mr. Black wrote in his memoirs. “I could not speak for some time and received all my sustenance through an IV and a straw. That ended my hockey career.”
Back home in his father's business, he and Robert hauled large appliances to buyers, a job that grew less attractive with each back-breaking delivery. “It did not take us long to realize that there was little glamour in selling and delivering washing machines,” William recalled.
“In the first year working for my father, he fired me three times and I quit once.”
It became apparent that the appliance business was no more suited to the Black brothers than the grocery business had been for their father.
Eddie Black permitted William to expand the store's photo counter with more equipment and movie film. Soon, the operation split into two stores, with the appliance division moving down the street, and the brothers opening their own department store on the original site. To keep the family peace, half the store was devoted to fishing tackle, shotguns, rifles and other sporting goods in accord with Robert's wishes. The boys prospered, expanding to 16mm sound projectors that were purchased from the YMCA, Red Cross and Salvation Army. The machines were repaired or cleaned up, and sold to a waiting market.
That, in turn, led to a new-fangled area: A film rental library, which became popular for birthday parties and in-home entertainment. The Blacks eventually stocked over 50 full-length feature films and hundreds of cartoons, travel, adventure, sports and musical shorts, presaging video rental stores by decades.
By 1949, it was obvious that cameras were outselling sporting goods, so the brothers decided to focus solely on photo gear, even though cameras at the time were almost painful to use because they were so complicated. Wrote Robert Black in Picture Perfect, a published history of the company, “you had to focus, cock the shutter, set the lens opening and speed, set your flash and figure out the proper distance. Photography often required a tripod. If you had slides, you needed trays, a projector, and a screen. Movies needed splicers, reels and cans.”
Even so, “our timing was perfect. In less than a decade, the camera went from being a specialty item to a common family purchase.”
As William put it, “we were certainly in the right place at the right time for phenomenal growth.” Good thing too, because the post-war boom saw companies that had made bombs and bullets return to making appliances, but the sudden glut meant small businesses could barely keep up. To make up for their father's declining sales, the Black brothers expanded the original appliance store to create what was thought to be Canada's largest photography shop.
They soon bought out another camera store in downtown Toronto, and in time for their fifth outlet in 1956, formed a new company, Eddie Black's Stores Ltd. Expansion into Kitchener, Hamilton and London, Ont. followed. By 1960 they tallied 10 stores and $1-million in annual sales.
They opened a “modest” photofinishing lab in North Toronto for prints and colour slides in 1961, the year that was burned into the family's memory when the company became the first chain retailer to be charged with misleading advertising under the federal Combines Investigation Act.
The case was built on the word “regular” as used to describe prices in advertising flyers. The brothers argued that the word denoted the manufacturer's suggested retail price, but the government insisted the consumer would infer it meant the normal retail price. Ottawa prevailed, and the company was fined $100 on each of the 13 counts, generating embarrassing headlines. “It was a blow to our pride,” William allowed.
To add insult to injury, his father repaired to Toronto's Granite Club to drown his sorrows on the day the story hit the papers. There, he wondered aloud to a fellow member, a lawyer, whether the boys should appeal the ruling. The lawyer thought an appeal would not succeed, and a short time later, sent Eddie a bill for $500 for “opinion rendered regarding court action.” William called it the most expensive drink his father ever had.
The brothers bounced back. Eager to employ new methods, they held in-store demonstrations and provided photography lessons. “In those days, we didn't make much money, but we had a lot of excitement,” Robert Black recalled in a company profile. “My brother Bill would keep on buying volume deals on cameras and I had to work day and night trying to sell them.”
Stores were sharp and clean, staff were fully trained, and the windows were always dressed to attract the attention not only of pedestrians but of riders on passing streetcars. Early on, the Blacks employed nationally known voices for radio advertising, including Fred Davis, host of CBC's Front Page Challenge. Later, it was Martin Short of SCTV fame who appeared as himself and his various manic characters in Black's TV commercials, featuring the “Black's is photography” jingle.
By 1969, the Blacks were operating 19 stores with annual sales of $6-million. The company went public that year on the Toronto Stock Exchange.
Meantime, photo technology had been accelerating at breakneck pace, and they kept up with all the developments, from Polaroids to inexpensive Kodak Instamatics that used cartridge film, to fully automatic single-lens reflex cameras, and an ever-growing number of attachments and gadgets. (Rival Japan Camera claims it opened the first one-hour photofinishing lab in North America).
But the Blacks' biggest breakthrough came in 1977 when they revolutionized the industry.
Feeling the heat from the instant pictures Polaroids and later Kodak cameras were generating, they needed something bold and unique. The answer lay in the size of the pictures themselves. The standard at the time was 3.5-by-5 inches, so why not boost that to 4-by-6 inches? It wasn't as easy as it sounded.
The brothers visited the Kodak factory in Rochester, N.Y., which said it could make a custom printer – but only for one size. In other words, there was no turning back; it was 4-by-6 or nothing. The brothers rolled the dice, and realized they also had to offer new frames and photo albums to go with the new size.
The gambit paid off. Not only did the bigger prints catch on, it took competitors years to do the same and establish them as the norm. Business at Black's ballooned to $30-million by 1979, and to $67-million by 1984. The 113-store company was bought by Telus Corp. last September.
Far from recoiling from it, William Black embraced the digital photo revolution, to the point where he became adept at constructing large family photo collages on the computer. His daughter, Cassie, laughed when she recalled her wedding, where her father persuaded the photographer to hand over his film so Black's could develop it. “It was unheard of,” she said.
Ultimately, her father trafficked in memories. “He was very committed to memories. That's what he did. He marketed memories.”
William Edward Black was born in Toronto on Dec. 26, 1925 and died there on March 6, 2010 of pancreatic cancer. He was 84. He leaves his wife of 61 years, Frances (née Graham), children Eddie, Donald, David and Cassie, 14 grandchildren, two great-grandsons and siblings Barry, Bruce and Barbara Wurster. Robert Black died last April.