LONDON, ONTARIO – It was some time in the fall of 1980 when I met Bill McGrath for the first time as he poked his head through the office doorway while I was dropping off my latest essay to Norm Ibsen, the London Free Press’ editor in charge of the opinion/editorial and book review pages. “We seem to be running something by this guy every week,” Bill said to Norm, indicating me with a nod of his head. “Isn’t it time we had a picture?”
Norm agreed and Bill took me out to the less cramped hallway and set me up against a clear section of wall where a reasonable amount of natural light leaked through and took my photo with his Polaroid.
“I’m really glad we’re running your columns,” Bill told me with a conspiratorial smile as we stood around waiting for my lovely visage to materialize on the murky card that emerged from the base of his camera. He explained that he would be sketching out an inky likeness of my face to accompany my articles; and that he did all the drawings of writers that appeared on the editorial pages; a journalistic tradition that was already passing out of fashion but which the Free Press wouldn’t relinquish for another decade. I told him that I didn’t know what all the writers he’d depicted looked like in real life. “But your Art Buchwald is aces.”
That day we established a “how-do-you-do?” sort of acquaintance which held up for the next fifteen years. This dramatically deepened into friendship one chilly night in October of 1996 when both of us found ourselves at real crossroads in our lives. I was attending an Opus Dei retreat for men at St. Stephen’s of Hungary church in old South London when I noticed Bill sitting in a pew two rows in front of me. Always a handsome dog with his thick weave of hair and a kindly face, that night he was wearing a snappy blue jacket with some light fur trim. At a couple points in the evening, I caught myself idly staring at his profile as he huddled in prayer, envying him his solid and respectable station in life. Now there was a guy who’d played his cards well unlike some losers I could mention.
I knew next to nothing about Opus Dei but decided to attend this retreat because I badly needed some spiritual ballast in my life to weather the storm I knew was coming. At the age of 44, I was about to bail as editor of SCENE magazine which then constituted the mainstay of my livelihood. The publisher had fallen under the spell of a consultant who was set on remaking our arts and opinion journal into a breezier entertainment weekly. The scaling down of our magazine’s scope had been coming on in humiliating stages and I was having major blowout arguments with the publisher every week as I was forced to cut columns and let some of my favourite writers go. My wife who was doing all the layout would find a way to hang in for three or four more issues after I walked. But one way and another, the end was coming and our household was in for a world of pain.
What I didn’t know until Bill and I fell into a long conversation outside the church at the end of our retreat, was that he was about to chuck all fifty-two cards in his well-played deck up into the air as well . . . though he, at least, would have a pension when all those pieces fluttered back to earth in a heap. At the age of sixty, and after thirty-five years at the Free Press where he’d worked himself up from a draughtsman in the ad department to editorial art director in charge of the overall look of the paper, Bill had decided to accept an early retirement buyout offer. The Freeps was starting into its downward trajectory of successive contractions by then and wasn’t the rewarding place to work that it had been. He still loved the game of designing a paper but knew that the days of innovation and leeway were a thing of the past there.
Bill had recently been invited to Spain to share his expertise with some newspaper publishers and art directors and found that junket thoroughly invigorating. By talking with people who were so excited by the possibilities of what could be achieved through the arrangement of words and graphics and pictures on a page, he was reminded of what drew him to newspaper work in the first place. And when he wasn’t consulting with other newspaper professionals, he was dashing all over the country on visits to Spanish churches. Those ancient Spanish churches were another revelation for this orphan boy from Northern Ontario who’d converted to Catholicism in order to marry a young nurse-in-training, Marcia Van Domelen; awakening a hunger to deepen his commitment and explore more deeply the history and traditions of his adopted faith.
Bill often talked with head-shaking wonder about the Mass he attended at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia which serves as the grand terminus for pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago. This magnificent cathedral has a censer as big as a small boat which is ignited and raised up into the central dome on chains where it trails great cloudy plumes of incense as it careens and swings from side to side. It is said that this immense censer was originally designed to act as a sort of celestial air freshener in a space that was regularly invaded by whiffy pilgrims who’d been hiking through the Pyrenees and sleeping rough along the way for weeks and even months. Confronted with the spectacle of this flying, smoking ship of the air, Bill the Catholic tourist was flooded with a whole new level of awe for a Church that would orchestrate something so daft and reckless and unspeakably beautiful as this.
Though there were sixteen years between us and I alone was in a state of financial peril, when we forged our deeper friendship that night behind St. Stephen’s of Hungary Church, we both were perched on the rim of the great unknown and summoning the strength to leap. We were seeking out new places where we could worthily pursue our trades and were determined in every aspect of our lives to align ourselves more completely with our faith. The first great project we hurled ourselves into – putting together the prototype for a substantive weekly newspaper that would showcase the work of a lot of the good people I’d had to let go from SCENE – came to naught. We had some definite nibbles but no backers with sufficiently deep pockets stepped forward to help us float it.
By the next spring Larry Henderson had taken me on as associate editor of his Catholic monthly magazine, Challenge, and with Bill at the wheel - and taking photos and making sketches - we’d head out all over the province and once into Michigan to work up stories on pro-life conferences and marches, talks by various Catholic luminaries such as author Michael O’Brien and EWTN foundress Mother Angelica, a publishers’ trade show, a Pan-American conference on religious rights and a four day Opus Dei retreat.
At one of these multi-day confabs in the fall of 1998, we were sharing a room at some hotel near the Pearson Airport when I jolted myself awake one morning by snoring with particular vehemence. Bill's bed was empty; he'd already showered and dressed and nipped down to the lobby to snap up that day’s edition of the recently launched National Post which he was poring his way through at the little desk in our suite. Bill adored the early Post for its content and its look and the challenge it posed to newspapers across the land to try a little harder. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I must’ve been snoring pretty loud.”
“Not at all,” he said, looking up from his paper with a smile. “Just a gentle purr.”
This was a line so preternaturally gallant that I swiped it and invoke it on those exceedingly rare occasions when my wife expresses a similar anxiety.
Later that same year Bill laid out and designed my first book for Elmwood publishers, In Good Faith, and did similar work for almost every book that London house has subsequently published. The last book of mine which he saw through the press was 2010’s No Continuing City. We took our time with that one; both because we lavished extra attention on every aspect of its design and flow (and it is, I think, the most elegant of our productions) and also because Bill, now well into his seventies, wasn’t so inclined to put in marathon twelve-hour shifts at his computer terminal.
When Bruce Monck launched The London Yodeller in December of 2013, I came on as editor and endured the wildly eccentric proclivities of his chosen layout man until the doofus nearly sabotaged the fledgling enterprise with a lawsuit-worthy issue that came out in February of 2014 while I was in Australia. So that was the end of that chap’s art-directorship and in a big hurry, Kirtley offered to save everybody’s bacon by getting back into the layout biz seventeen years after her stint at Scene. She was, of course, ably and calmly coached through the nail-biting minefield of her first Yodeller issue by Bill. And he remained her go-to guy for the occasional solving of quandaries throughout the three-year run of that uniquely lovable magazine. And just as importantly, he regularly gave her the kind of informed feedback on her job performance that only he could provide.
The parameters of our friendship were such – working on journalism assignments out in the world; meetings at my place of our Christian men’s reading group, the Wrinklings; meetings of the Baconian Club at Chaucer’s Pub – that I never really got to know Bill’s family well. His three sons (only two of whom I think I’ve formally met) were grown and launched into the world by the time Bill and I became a tag team. I’d bump into his wife, Marce, from time to time, and a genial soul she was, but I don't believe we ever had a sustained conversation.
As a born Catholic, I think she was a little bemused by Bill’s growing preoccupation with his faith. It’s not that she didn’t value it or ever took the Church for granted. She was a tireless volunteer at the McGraths’ home parish of St. John the Divine; which the pair of them played a pivotal role in establishing shortly after they arrived in London. But Marce just got on with her faith and didn’t feel Bill's need to sit around gaping at the mystery and splendor of it all. The most amusing example of the McGraths' disparity of approach to matters divine came somewhere around the turn of the millennium when they headed out on separate dream vacations to places the other could never be persuaded to go and Bill made his way over to the Holy Land (later regaling the Wrinklings with a splendid slideshow) and Marce flew down to Vegas to play the slots.
The time when I had the most to do with Marce was in the wake of her sudden death in August of 2003. Hers was the first Catholic funeral I ever attended and I was astonished – in a good and heart-wrenching way – at what a powerful ceremony it was. At a prayer service at the funeral home the night before the Mass, I felt a little lightheaded when I first noticed there was a kneeler set up right at coffin-side. The casket, of course, was open, and anyone who knelt there was brought intimately close so that they were literally whispering into her ear as they prayed.
Kids, even those who could scarcely toddle, were not kept at bay or barred from any part of the ceremony. The next day it was Bill and Marce’s grandkids who carried the Eucharistic gifts forward to the coffin at the foot of the altar and passed them over to the priests. Any friends of the family who managed to hang onto their composure through that, soon lost it when the kids returned to the pews in tears to be picked up or hugged by their sobbing parents.
I would say it was about a week after that that Bill and I sat together in his car in the shaded parking lot behind a bank near the university gates (I was taking over from him as Baconian president and we had to sign some transfer notices for the club’s account) and he talked to me for more than an hour about how much that funeral had helped him make it through the hardest thing he’d ever endured (not that his mourning was over by any stretch) by keeping him focused on his family and his faith and reminding him that he wasn’t alone in his grieving nor in the hope of ultimate reconciliation.
In 2017 Bill succumbed to a bout of the gout that really knocked the stuffing out of him, sapping his strength, causing him to lose weight and turning that beautiful head of hair kind of frizzy.. He also started reacting badly to wine and I valiantly stepped forward to haul away the dozen cases of pretty decent homemade Merlot he had stashed in his basement. Bill went into care in his own monitored apartment at Windermere on the Mount shortly thereafter. He could be visited there any old time and still made it out to important meetings of the Baconians (last turning out for the mid-winter banquet of 2020 just before the Wuhan batflu suspended operations of the club) and the Wrinklings (struggling with our stairs for the last time to attend September's 25th anniversary gala for which Kirtley baked a cake decked out with sparklers.)
Frequently isolated by the on-again / off-again lock-downs of the last fourteen months and discouraged when every slight improvement in health was soon succeeded by a greater deterioration, Bill became increasingly listless, sleeping away great quantities of each day and taking minimal interest in food. As Holy Week got underway he told his sons that he was ready to die and had them ask Father Adam Gabriel (who he'd known from the earliest days at St. John the Divine) to come and administer the Last Rites, which he did, appropriately enough, on Good Friday. Then his son, Dan, sent out a letter to Bill's friends, telling us where things stood and that Bill would love the opportunity to say goodbye to us. Now that he had been declared palliative, Dan said, it was a lot easier to get in for a visit. His door was never locked. Just knock a few times and go in. Dan warned us that we might have to wake him up. "He wants to see you. You may have a great chat for 20-30 minutes and he may fade out a bit. He is still listening, just nudge him once and a while."
Kirtley and I got up to see him on Wednesday April 7th, at about five-thirty. We still had to get decked out in the full bee-keeper's outfit of beastly PPE-wear to move through the public hallways but were able to shed its clammier components once we got up to his room. Bill was asleep in his recliner when we first came in but woke up as soon as we said hello and gave us the warmest smile. We stayed with him for a little over an hour and found him to be surprisingly responsive. He drifted off to sleep on us once but was easily called back and his brain was firing away with pretty impressive efficiency, dredging up names from his early life in Timmins and Kapuskasing and recalling his courtship with Marce. At one point he did a really good impersonation of Father Gabriel telling him that just because he’d given him the Last Rites, "You are under no obligation to die right away."
I thought about heading out after twenty minutes and then forty minutes, but the way Bill was smiling and yakking away, I knew it wasn’t necessary. Indeed Kirtley was so struck by his level of engagement and animation, she found it hard to imagine Bill would be parting any veils any time soon. We had a wonderful hour full of reminiscence and laughter and more tender expressions of gratitude for friendship and faith in God. I knew I wanted to go see him one last time but I must admit that I was dreading it in many ways. And as we left his room I was almost overwhelmed by what a sublime pleasure it had been. And when he died ten days later I was so thankful to Kirtley and one of the Wrinklings for helping me find the courage to go. When Dan showed up at about a quarter to seven, he remarked on how lively his father seemed. “It must be because it’s his birthday,” Dan said.
What an honour it was to have that time with my good friend Bill McGrath as we looked out over the edge of eternity on his 85th and final birthday.
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