Updated: Apr 30, 2020
To accomplish one or two great things in life is a goal we all strive for, but what about a man who has achieved success in many different areas? From sculpture to metal art, photography to architecture and much, much more. The man of course, was Bill Lishman, known also as Father Goose, the basis for Jeff Daniel’s major motion picture, Fly Away Home (1996)
Sadly, Bill passed away in 2017, and as there currently is a program underway to honour his life with a sculpture, I began to reminisce about my last interview with him. I had heard of his accomplishments for many years and had always wondered what it would be like to meet him. I was pleased when he consented to do an article, especially as we met at his huge, underground home in Scugog.
Bill designed their home, and with help from his long time assistant Richard Vanheuvelen and Bill’s two sons Aaron and Geordie, he built the seven igloo-shaped rooms made of concrete, linked by vaulted corridors and buried beneath tons of dirt. Over a cup of tea and several butter tarts, in front of a stone fireplace, Bill casually began to speak about his rebellious youth.
His father was a Brit who worked in Africa and decided to immigrate to Canada. A 150 acre farm in Pickering was where Bill, the only boy of three children, was born. His mother, a biologist who graduated from UofT in 1924, encouraged Bill’s early artistic talent for carving soap into animals, but his father preferred he devote his life to farming.
Bill attended school in the one room school house at the corner of Harwood and Highway 2, and his father spent the war working at the munitions plant in Ajax. Bill’s grades reflected his dislike for high school and he spent much of his time with kids from Ajax, an area which at that time, was similar to New York’s Hell’s Kitchen.
Bill and his father did not get along, and at 17 he moved away from the family farm. His income came from fixing lawnmowers at Dinty Sleeps Small Engine Repairs in Pickering. He was shocked when one day, he was suddenly fired for no apparent reason. It turned out the principal of the school, whose daughter Bill was dating, thought the part time job was keeping Bill’s grades down, and asked Mr. Sleep to fire him. The truth was that Bill is was dyslexic, which back in the forties was not diagnosed, and it was assumed he was academically challenged.
At the same time Bill was experimenting in a subject he enjoyed – chemistry. He and a few friends set out to create some firecrackers, but ended up with explosives so strong they blew up a weigh scale at a construction company, which was nothing more to Bill than ‘thinking outside the box’. Having a federal offense hanging over his head, Bill was asked to withdraw from school, so he ran away to join the air force to become a flyer. Unfortunately his colour blindness stopped him from pursuing his love of flying, and he moved to Sault Ste. Marie, a town where his older sister taught school.
At nineteen Bill fixed up an old motorcycle, which he sold and earned enough money to buy a one way passage on the Queen Mary, to England, a country Bill had always wanted to visit. His time was spent working at wood carving shops, an art which fascinated Bill immensely. Perhaps it was his grandfather’s talent as a woodcarver that created his interest.
In 1959 Bill returned to Canada, and took a job installing television antennas. He also enrolled in the Ontario College of Art, where he stayed for a year. He worked for the company that built the landing gear of the Avro Arrow, and, when that project was abandoned, Bill was offered a job in marketing for the company’s jet boat department. His job was to promote the boats by demonstrating them throughout Ontario. After two years the company shut down the boat department and, Bill was again on the job market.
Walter Wilson, a blacksmith in the town of Greenwood, offered Bill the blacksmith shop to use as a studio for a year. After Walter’s death, his wife Edna Green (the town was named after her family) insisted Bill stay there. Along with a friend, Brian McKenzie, Bill started wood carving in earnest, while at the same time using the blacksmith tools to learn metalworking .
Bill designed a metal mural, and in 1963 won a design competition for the new Dominion store at Yorkdale. Suddenly the commissions were coming in, and Bill was on top of his game. In 1968 he married Paula Vockeroth who he met on at trip to Mexico, and the couple moved to a one room school house north of Brougham.
Two years later Bill met Michael Robertson, a neighbour who was experimenting in hang-gliding and his love for flying resurfaced. When his house was expropriated, for the proposed Pickering Airport, Bill and Paula bought a piece of property in Scugog. It was a large acreage with a big hill, where Bill could practice his gliding.
In 1978 Bill attached a motor to the hang glider. After many crashes he began to perfect the process, and finally learned to fly. A few years later he used the ultra light to assist a flock of Canada Geese to migrate. His book on the subject, ‘Father Goose – Adventures of a Wildlife Hero’, caught the attention of Columbia Pictures. Soon Bill’s life became a major motion picture, with Jeff Daniels portraying Bill Lishman.
From creating metal spaceships to ice replicas of Stonehenge, there are few areas that Bill Lishman hads not explored. Bill shared a vision with me; all machinery and metal objects that go to the arctic are eventually abandoned in huge scrap heaps outside all Northern communities. His goal was to redirect the artistic talents of up and coming native artists, to extend their palette of soapstone and whalebone into using this huge resource of metal into art. He called the project The New Whalebone.
As if that was not enough, Bill put his ultra-light aircraft to a good use. With the help of an engineer friend he had designed a plane, which can be folded and fitted to carry first-aid packs to disaster zones where conventional road transport cannot go. More on this cause is available at www.airfirstaid.com.
In 2008 Bill received an honourary doctorate in law at a presentation with hundreds of guests, including his wife and three children. Not bad for a kid who was tossed out of high school.