I met Bill around 1990 when he contacted me for some information about induced abortions, for a book he was writing, The Trouble with Canada. He soon became a very good friend. We talked regularly about many, many things, and I was a member of his online discussion group, which debated political, spiritual, and other issues in a courteous but frank manner. Bill and I also had personal conversations, in which he confided to me his life experiences, starting with his career as a child chorister, when with his school choir he sang at Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953.
Then there was his distinguished career as a runner. He represented Canada at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, in the 400-metre hurdles and the decathlon. Then, after taking his PhD at Stanford, he became a professor of English (briefly at York!). He quit York after less than two years, partly because it was an insufferably left-wing institution, and partly because rumours were circulating that most junior faculty were soon going to be laid off on budgetary grounds – last hired, first fired.
His next career was as CEO of the Fitness Institute, founded by his father. He later told me that trying to run a retail business in Ontario was endlessly frustrating because of all the time-consuming paperwork and red tape imposed by the government. After returning it to profitability, he sold the Institute to research and write about political and philosophical issues. In other words, he became ‘a man of letters’! During the time he was writing articles and books he also did a lot of coaching of disadvantaged kids and was so successful that several of them won track and field scholarships to prominent American universities.
While Bill was almost always at work on another book or article, he always had time to read anything that I presumed to send him. In fact, we both read and commented on each other’s work. He read my manuscripts with great care, and offered many helpful comments and suggestions, most of which I adopted. I know he helped many other authors, such as Harley Price, in a similar way. His generosity, his willingness to give of his time, knew no bounds.
He and his wife Jean had a wonderful, long-lasting marriage, and had five children whom they adored. And the children adored him. And so did his grandchildren. One of his daughters, Ruthann, also has five children. Bill always had a twinkle in his eye and an infectious sense of humour.
Besides many get-togethers with Jean and my wife Caroline, he would often have me over to his beautiful estate near King’s City, (just north of Toronto) for a bike ride, a lunch, or a walk in the woods, or a dive in his pond or swimming pool. Occasionally we would catch and fry some trout from his pond. Sometimes we would sit by his fireplace and smoke a cigar or a pipe and share one of his many fine scotch whiskeys. During the 3 or 4 weeks before he died, he kept saying ‘once I’ve had my operation, I want you to come over and we’ll cut in half that huge Cuban cigar you got for Christmas and smoke it over a glass of scotch, and then go down to the pond and catch another trout.’ Alas, that was not to be.
While Bill could be blunt and even aggressive, he could also be incomparably gracious. Typically, when I phoned him and asked how he was he would reply, ‘all the better for hearing your voice.’
Part of Bill’s legacy is the organization Civitas, ‘a place where ideas meet.’ It meets in cities across Canada, bringing together several hundred people — journalists, academics, politicians, and lawyers — from across the country to hear talks and debate political, economic, moral, and philosophical issues.
Another aspect of Bill Gairdner’s legacy is the many articles and books that he authored, and which had a real intellectual and political impact in this country. The book for which he is best known, The Trouble with Canada, was the number one best seller for many months, and was instrumental in refashioning the political landscape in this country. Bill did not court popularity. He was fearless in his embrace of unpopular ideas, as in his War on the Family, which indicted Canadian governments for striving to dismantle the traditional family and promote homosexuality and transgenderism supposedly in the name of individual rights.
The Book of Absolutes was a devastating critique of relativism in all its guises, and a defense of universals. In The Great Divide he explained exhaustively why liberals and conservatives will never, ever agree over a whole panoply of issues, political and moral. One of the books of which he was proudest was Canada’s Founding Debates, which brought to life again the issues and the arguments that led to the creation of Canada. In this scholarly tome he brings out the point that our fathers of Confederation were not only conservative for the most part, but unenthusiastic about democracy, and overwhelmingly Christian.
Finally, I should add that Bill Gairdner was a true Renaissance man. In addition to being an athlete and an author, he was an accomplished poet, painter, potter, and sculptor.
Although he never became a Christian, Bill believed in God as the creator of the universe, and the foundation of our morality. He was a follower of Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas, whom he read avidly. Among historians he was a follower of David Hume and Edmund Burke. In fact, he got me to read Hume, whose History of England is unfashionable among today’s historians.
I shall miss Bill terribly. He was indeed a giant among men.
(William Gairdner passed away January 12, 2024, aged 83)
Ian Gentles is a retired history professor from York and Tyndale Universities, and the author of books and articles on bioethics, 17th-century history, and Indian Residential Schools