Bill Lishman: Father Goose

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.