February 25, 2009

Bill Smiley was a welcome guest

As published in The Erin Advocate

Bill Smiley was a newspaper columnist who barged his way into the lives of millions of Canadians by the sheer force of his personality.

I have been reading old issues of The Erin Advocate at the library (back to 1974) and they draw a fascinating sketch of this area, even for someone who did not grow up here. Bill did not write about Erin, but he was our guest almost every week for some 22 years.

Known as Sugar and Spice, the column appeared in weeklies across Canada. It was in 18 papers when Erin picked it up in 1957, and the customer list grew to more than 130 with syndication by The Toronto Telegram, as editors and readers learned to love his small-town wit and wisdom.

He was honored as most outstanding columnist in 1974 by the Canadian Community Newspaper Association (CCNA). According to the CCNA website, he became Canada's most-read columnist and continued writing until two years before his death in 1987, at the age of 67.

Bill's column was very personal. He spoke of his father's depression and his mother's frantic work to support five kids in the 1930s. "There was no way we were going on relief. It was shameful. Somehow we staggered through." He predicted another economic depression, though it has been slow to arrive.

He often talked of being shot down during the Second World War and his time in a prison camp. He did not care for the annual gatherings of POWs who wanted to relive the experience after the war.

For 11 years, he was the editor and publisher of The Wiarton Echo. Later, he worked on "the assembly line at the pupil-factory," as head of English at the high school in Midland, and did not mince words about the quality of some of the finished product. "Some of the rottenest people, physically, morally and emotionally, whom I have ever met, have been honour students. With no sense of honour."

His grandson, however, was a great source of joy. "The existence of so much delight and charm and laughter and love, all wrapped up in one perfectly formed nine-month old creation, restores my faith, which at times becomes a little tattered around the edges, in God."

His wife Sue became well-known, though I doubt she appreciated the attention. He was calling her "old trouble and strife" in 1957. Their fighting and making-up continued as column topics for decades. In 1974, he described his feelings when she went away for a weekend: "When I put the old battleaxe on the bus, or see the car drive off, I try to look mournful. Then I give a great sigh of relief, and feel like a fellow who has just walked out the jailhouse gates."

It appears that The Advocate stopped carrying the column when the paper was sold to a new owner in 1979. A new column appeared, called The Way I See It, by James Burnett.

For all his crankiness, Bill Smiley had a wonderful way with words: "There's a certain sadness in the knowledge that summer is over, but it only lasts a day or so. Any red-blooded Canadian knows deep in his boots that summer is merely an unreal state of mind that has no more substance, no more staying power, than a pleasant dream."

I wish I had written that. Maybe I will write that, or something like it. After all, there are no new ideas waiting to be discovered – just old ones that need to be polished up.