Tribute to Bill McCowan

February 2019 / Scarborough, Ontario, Canada

A Tribute to William David (Bill) McCowan

By Catherine Bacque 

On Saturday January 12, 2019, family, friends and community members gathered at the historic St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church to celebrate and honour the life of William David (Bill) McCowan. Located just steps from McCowan Road and on the edge of Thomson Park, where the McCowan log house museum now stands, the church was a second home to Bill and his family. As noted by Pastor Monica McClure, Bill was a church member from birth, “plus nine months!”

In a book compiled by his son Bruce, Bill remarks, “I was born in the big McCowan farm-house on the north side of Kingston Road a couple of hundred paces east of McCowan Road — “the sideroad” as we called it back then. Here’s how my sister Helen (three and a half years older than me) described the main event on December 21, 1923: Little Bill slipped into this world before the doctor got to the house, with only Dad there to assist.” (We’re Not Here to Put in Time:  Ramblings on a Scottish-Canadian Work Ethic. 2018)

Just days after his 95th birthday, after spending Christmas at home, Bill passed away on December 28, 2018, surrounded by his loving family. His grandchildren Chris and Alison had moving memories of that last Christmas with their grandfather and shared fond and funny stories about their grandpa: his sayings, like “I’m older than my teeth and the same age as my tongue”; his unique laugh–more like a giggle, except for the time he took out his dentures on request at a family party; and how he showed his love for them—“People always say they love things like their cars, so I’d rather show it.”

At the service, Bill McCowan was remembered as a man of few words and great wit, a dedicated and loving father and grandfather, and an incredibly diligent, inventive and wise man. He worked for 30 years at IBM, and on his retirement, declared that he was retiring from IBM, not from life. He went on to board horses, manage bush lots, build barns and farm (among many other things) on the property that he and his wife of over 66 years, Nancy, bought in Pickering when they moved out of the family home in the spring of 1970. 

As recalled by many family members, Bill wanted things done right: efficiently, economically, deftly and in good time. Not surprisingly, he planned his own memorial down to the last detail, a fact noted fondly by many family members who spoke at the service. As his daughter Ruth said, her father was a pragmatic man, which was reflected in his requirement that there be visitations in Pickering and Scarborough, so as “not to inconvenience others.” Given the overflowing crowd of folks paying their respects at Saturday’s service, those who knew and loved Bill didn’t mind a little “inconvenience.” Yet as daughter Barbara quoted her father on the occasion of his recent 95th birthday, “Ninety-five years ago everyone made a fuss over me and now they are making a fuss all over again.”

Bill’s son Bruce shared a recent moment when he discovered a scrap of paper with some lines handwritten by his father, from a poem by William Wilfred Campbell, Indian Summer: “Along the line of smoky hills/The crimson forest stands…” He realized that his father had recalled those lines memorized so long ago in school, and Bruce spontaneously recited another famous poem which, like his father, he had memorized in grade school. The poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost, was a fitting tribute to his father, as Bruce said, “It’s about getting a job done, but also stopping to smell the roses.”

As the service moved toward a close, Pastor Duncan Cameron honoured Bill McCowan’s “life of humility and gentleness”, his “able and willing hand around the church”, and his deep and abiding love for his wife Nancy. The pastor recalled memories of Bill curling, playing euchre, dancing with Nancy, and painstakingly dismantling an old barn on the church property when more space was needed for parking, then rebuilding it and using it for many years afterward as the family cottage. Bill McCowan had “the humble trust of a saint” and was “truly a child of God.” As his loving wife Nancy said, he was “like a firefly, small in stature, but he cast a great light.”

William David (Bill) McCowan’s memorial web page is: https://www.arbormemorial.ca/mceachnie/obituaries/william-david-mccowan/28227, where more of Bill’s story, in his own words, can be found. 

Bruce McCowan’s book about his father’s life and work ethic, and many other texts about the history of the McCowan family in Scarborough, can be ordered from the James McCowan Memorial Social History Society website, http://www.mccowan.org/, which itself is a treasure trove of information.

An annual Work Ethic award is being established at Bill McCowan’s old high school, Danforth Collegiate and Technical Institute, in his name and in his memory. 

If you wish to help fund the Bill McCowan Memorial Work Ethic Award, cheques payable to “McCowan Memorial” may be sent to:

  1. McCowan Award

c/o 19 Monarchwood Crescent

Toronto, Ontario  M3A 1H3