There was a line in the memorial handout at Bill Norrie’s funeral that alerted me to the fact we were all missing out on something very important about our former mayor. It read "Bill delighted in shaking the hand of every student who passed across the stage at convocation."
At first glance, a rather innocuous statement but it stirred the memories of one great experience I had with Bill Norrie.
It was the early 1980s and I was employed as the community development worker at the Indian and Metis Friendship Centre when this huge debate was launched over whether or not the city should fund a "non-profit housing corporation."
The Friendship Centre was in favour of such a move and we had none other than Mayor William Norrie on our side (I didn’t know Bill but he was the mayor so this was a good thing).
There was formidable opposition led by Coun. Jim Ernst, who maintained that civic governments are responsible for services such as local road repairs, garbage collection, snow removal and such. Things like housing are the responsibility of more senior levels of government.
All that this neophyte, 20-something idealist knew was that we had to get a simple majority of the 30 Councillors to vote in favour of a motion which allowed the city to fund a non-profit housing corporation. My role was to make the pitch in favour at a city council meeting.
Behind the scenes, there was a real blood sport taking place. Norrie and Ernst were arm-twisting councillors one by one and it was a real street fight. Of course, I thought what I had to say to council was going to play a huge role in deliberations but, in the total scheme of things, my words added up to squat. What really counted was how effective Norrie or Ernst had been in lining up councillors.
I will never forget how it all went down. After I finished my presentation, the vote was held and it ended up tied at 15-15. I looked over at Mayor Norrie in a total mix of confusion and desperation and seeing this incredibly calm man, who somehow found the time and care and calm in the eye of the storm to provide me with a reassuring wink of his eye before he turned to council and said, "The vote is tied. Therefore, as mayor I am provided with an additional vote. I vote "Aye" and the motion is carried."
Bill banged his gavel and we had won!
Later in the evening, as we gathered in celebration, Bill Norrie pulled me aside and said, "Don, I want you to know that deep down in my heart and soul, I believe that we judge our society’s greatness by the manner in which we treat the less fortunate among us."
At the time, I had no idea what Bill was talking about. I did not see my new buddy "Mayor Bill" as some graduate in philosophy, politics and economics, which he was as I learned much later.
Perhaps too often we honour leaders for what we think are the "loftiest ideals" while we forget what it takes to make real good things happen at the grassroots level.
Bill Norrie accomplished many things with high ideals and intellectual leadership. But he could get down and throw with the best of them.
Let us remember William "Bill" Norrie for that as well.
Don Marks is a freelance writer in Winnipeg and a former community development worker at the Indian and Metis Friendship Centre in Winnipeg.