Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Flush with pride

He may be 80, but Bill the Plumber isn't about to hang up his ice-cream tool bucket

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As anyone who has paid a plumber lately knows, the paycheques plumbers can earn has given the trade a new panache.

So maybe the best indication of how long it's been -- and how much has changed -- since Bill Gregorchuk began plumbing is his hourly wage when he started.

"Sixty cents," he says.

Mind you, that was as an apprentice and that was 61 years ago. By the time he made journeyman, Bill was making way more.

About $1.88 an hour.

But then, it was never the primary goal of William Gregorchuk -- a.k.a. Bill the Plumber -- to become wealthy.

Healthy was more important.

That and making a comfortable home for his wife and three children, being on time, doing a good job and treating everyone with respect.

In the course of doing all of that, Bill the Plumber has become something of a legend in Winnipeg, as his daughter, Diane, suggested when she contacted me with a "time-sensitive" email.

"He is very well-known throughout the city as the little Ukrainian fellow who carries a five-gallon pail for his tools."

Actually, it's an ice-cream pail.

Instead of lugging a tool box out of his truck, Bill just puts what he needs in his ice-cream pail.

"Why carry all that weight?" he reasons.

On Monday, Bill proudly displayed his famous tool pail when we met at the doll's house of a St. Boniface home where he and his wife, Helen, have lived since 1958. We sat in the kitchen beside an old-fashioned radio, and under a painting of The Last Supper that hangs on the wall, Bill laughed easily and often as he told his life story.

But he also wept more than once.

He laughed hardest after he offered instructions on how homeowners can identify a leaky toilet, and then admitted it took "a couple of weeks" before he noticed, found and fixed the leak in his own basement toilet.

Later, at the kitchen table, Helen consoled her husband when he wept while recalling the end of the Dirty Thirties, when his homesteading father had to set out on foot from their farm near Vita in search of work wherever he could find it.

The normally jolly Bill wept again when I asked about his quitting school as a teenager because his parents need him to work the farm.

Diane told me what he wouldn't about how he took quitting school.

"He found a jug of home brew and sat behind the barn and cried the entire day."

Bill had wanted to be a teacher.

But, by 17, he was already working with his house-building uncle hammering nails when the plumber who was working on the same jobs asked if he wanted to learn that trade.

So he worked and he went to school.

And, after they were married and while Bill was still in trade school, Helen peeled potatoes at a West End restaurant called Johnny's. Later he would peel potatoes there, too. Just to eat.

Bill would also work for a series of plumbing companies and later as steam fitter for Imperial Oil. And when that refinery disappeared, and his job with it, he opened Gregorchuk's Plumbing.

"I figured if I was good enough for a company, I was good enough to work for myself."

That was 1976, and the independence that went with being his own boss -- and being able to work from the family home -- was one of the happiest days of his life.

He worked anywhere someone would pay him. And even where they couldn't. His daughter still remembers how he explained why he didn't take much, if any money, from some people.

"Diane, the baby needed diapers. She can't afford to pay a plumbing bill."

He never got wealthy. And he's not as healthy as he was, with an arthritic right shoulder from years of working in tight places.

But he's not retiring.

"When you love the job, it's hard to leave it."

Which brings me back to Diane's "time sensitive" email, and why she wanted to introduce me to her dad.

"He is very proud of the modest life he has made for his family," Diane wrote, "and would be so proud to see his name in writing. This would be the greatest gift ever."

She meant the greatest birthday gift.

Happy 80th birthday, Bill.

From me, your family, your customers. And, of course, from all the leaky toilets you've fixed.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 1, 2013 B1


Updated on Tuesday, October 1, 2013 at 8:41 AM CDT: Adds photo

8:56 AM: Replaces photo, adds video

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