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Bill Norrie loved his city and was loved in return

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/7/2012 (1865 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It was hot and sunny, the kind of summer day Bill Norrie loved to spend at the lake with his family and friends.

Of course, he wasn't at the lake Wednesday, when more than 1,000 people -- family, friends and admirers, including the premier of the Manitoba, the mayor, two former premiers and two former mayors -- packed the sweltering Crescent Fort Rouge United Church to pay their respects to Winnipeg's 39th mayor, who died Friday of respiratory failure at age 83.

Helen Norrie attends her husband's funeral at Crescent Fort Rouge United Church.


Helen Norrie attends her husband's funeral at Crescent Fort Rouge United Church.

Bill Norrie's life story was told in four pages within a memorial service program, which many of those melting in the pews used to fan themselves.

The story started with his parents' roots in Scotland, his birth in St. Boniface and the family's move to Banning Street, where they lived so close to Daniel McIntyre Collegiate, "he would wait for the bell to ring before sprinting across the schoolyard" to class.

Cutting it close didn't stop the brilliant young student from winning the Governor General's medal, being voted school president and winning a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford.

All of which was widely known.

But there were some things only a select few knew about this most public, yet private, of men.

The day before the memorial service, I called his wife of 57 years. We began at the end.

"It was a relief for Bill," Helen told me Tuesday. "He was ready to go."

Then I took her back to the beginning. How did they meet?

"I think it was at the glee club."

But Helen Scurfield, as she was known back then, had gone to Kelvin High School. In those days, the University of Manitoba had a singing club, she said, and they had both been in the musical Brigadoon.

"A romantic comedy," Helen observed, with a little laugh.

What was it that attracted her to him? Besides the boyish good looks that had him appearing as a model for an Eaton's newspaper ad.

"I think it was just kind of exciting," Helen said. "Because he was always wanting to be doing things, always trying something new. He was fun."

Bill didn't talk publicly about his accomplishments as mayor. I wondered if Helen had an answer.

"I think The Forks was what he was most proud of. He wouldn't say, but he was really proud of The Forks."

What wasn't clear, though, was what his role was when the three levels of government joined as one to take over the CN railway property that's become the city's No. 1 tourist destination.

"I think Bill was the one who kind of approached the feds," Helen said. "He had the vision."

There was something else Bill never spoke of publicly. Something so private and painful, no one in the media dared go there; at least not while he was alive. But I admired how stoic Helen and Bill had been as they dealt with the death of one of their three sons.

And then another.

First Duncan Norrie, the 34-year-old water resource engineer, who perished along with more than 100 others when an airliner crashed on approach to Katmandu, Nepal, in July 1992.

Then, less than 10 years later, another son, Mark, died in Bali.

It was the first experience of losing a son, their first-born, that affected Bill most, Helen said.

"It really, really hit Bill hard."

Shortly before Duncan died, Bill announced he wouldn't be running for mayor again, but given what he went through, it seems doubtful he could have carried on.

How did he get through it?

"With great difficulty," Helen said.

Then she answered the question in a way only a wife could.

"I don't know that he ever really got over that."

And how did she get through it?

"It was tough," Helen said. "But I had to stay strong for him."

That message, of Helen's strength in the marriage, echoed in the church from Duncan's surviving family: his widow, Sheila Norrie, and daughters, Allison and Jennifer.

As did their admiration and affection for Grandpa Bill.

"His love of people stayed with him to the very end," Allison told the gathering. Less than three weeks ago, Bill and Allison were enjoying the sunshine when a woman approached him.

"At that point," Allison said, "communications had become difficult."

But he looked up, flashed his ever-boyish smile, and reached out with his hand. "Bill Norrie," he said, "Nice to see you again."

"That," Allison said, smiling proudly, "was my grandpa."

And that was our 39th mayor.

A person and a politician who was a man of the people, for the people, and who actually lived what John F. Kennedy preached. Bill Norrie asked not what his city could do for him, only what he could do for his city.

And he did that long before, and long after, he was mayor.

Oh Bill, how you are missed.

Winnipeg who's who attends funeral

Some of the prominent 1,000 mourners at Bill Norrie's memorial service:

Lt.-Gov. Philip S. Lee, Premier Greg Selinger, former premier and governor general Ed Schreyer, former premier Gary Filmon, Mayor Sam Katz, former mayors Susan Thompson and Glen Murray, deputy mayor Justin Swandel, city Couns. John Orlikow, Dan Vandal, Grant Nordman, Harvey Smith, Brian Mayes, Jenny Gerbasi, Mike Pagtakhan and Devi Sharma, city CAO Phil Sheegl, U of W president Lloyd Axworthy, U of M president David Barnard and chancellor Harvey Secter, police Chief Keith McCaskill, former police chief Herb Stephen, former mayoral candidates Nick Ternette and Peter Kaufmann, former provincial cabinet minister Jim Downey, former city councillor and lieutenant-governor Pearl McGonigal, former councillors John Angus, Lillian Thomas, William Neville and Bernie Wolfe, MP Kevin Lamoureux, former MP Bud Sherman, former chief medical officer Dr. Peter Markesteyn, Judge Morris Kaufman, retired judge W. Scott Wright, Forks North Portage Partnership CEO Jim August, philanthropist Gail Asper, former federal cabinet minister Otto Lang, refugee resettlement activist Tom Denton, Free Press publisher Bob Cox, editor Margo Goodhand, and editorial page editor Gerald Flood, Business Council of Manitoba president Jim Carr, businessman Arni Thorsteinson, artist Jordan Van Sewell, philanthropist Bill Loewen.

Read more by Gordon Sinclair Jr..


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