Dr. William Gregg, October 15 1930 – June 18 2000

This is a Lives Lived column I wrote for the Globe and Mail after my Dad died. He passed 15 years ago today. 

Young Bill Gregg 1 Enlarged

Andrew Gregg

July 21, 2000
Farmer, veterinarian, historian, collector and builder, born Oct. 15, 1930, in Toronto. Died June 18, in Kenmore, N.Y., from a pulmonary embolism after a brief battle with cancer, aged 69.

When the doctors told Bill Gregg that he had lymphoma, he dived into his books. Cancer was his new pursuit and he was going to become an expert, just like with everything else he had encountered in his remarkably varied life. He wanted to be able to ask doctors about advanced oncology and medicine. He didn’t want to dwell on death sentences and pain, because to him that just wouldn’t be interesting.

When my two brothers and I were growing up, it was always impossible to tell people what our father did for a living. At first, he was a scholar, twice graduating from the University of Guelph — once from the Ontario Agricultural College and the second time from the Ontario Veterinary College. Then he was a scientist and professor, patenting poultry and swine vaccines for Connaught labs at the University of Toronto.

In 1965, he bought a ramshackle old farm at the north end of Halton County and turned it into a wonderland of gardens and animals. Now he was a farmer, with three barns full of pigs.

In the house he became a collector, amassing roomfuls of rare Canadian antique furniture. And he turned his fields into the homes for preservation projects: endangered grain barns and log buildings, dating from the earliest days of Ontario’s settlement, threatened by developers and new highways. They were reborn around us, like a city of beams and timber and pine.

He was a pilot and loved vintage aircraft. He had always wanted a de Havilland Tiger Moth, the biplane the RCAF used for training in the Second World War. So he got one, and flew it out of our cornfield. Then he found more planes and helped build the squadron at the Canadian Warplane Heritage museum in Hamilton. He even delivered them their prized Avro Lancaster.

He taught himself about the engineers, designers and builders who helped the war effort, producing some 800,000 vehicles for the Allies. He spent years collecting more than 60 vehicles himself: trucks and tanks, armoured cars and motorcycles. He did it simply because he thought their story was important. And when the collection was big enough — around the same time that Mom’s patience ran out — he donated the entire fleet to CFB Shilo in Manitoba, where it remains on display.

These are barely glimpses of a extraordinary life. There’s so much more. It seems that death brings all of a person’s stories raining down on the heads of those who loved him. But here’s the simple part: Bill’s family always meant more to him than anything else in the world.

In 1950, when his mother Kate said she wanted to pick a Florida orange and stick her big toe in the Gulf of Mexico, Bill loaded the car and drove her straight through from Oakville. They pulled over at the first grove they saw south of Georgia, then hit the beach. A few hours later, they were driving home, because that’s the way his Mom wanted it.

And Bill stayed by his father’s side as, after 99 years, his father drifted quietly to sleep.

He was a romantic and he was love-struck by his wife Carol until the day he died. He strolled in from his walks in the forest with wildflowers. And he smiled.

Dad was one of those people who looked like he’d live forever. And then he died of an embolism, in an instant. He never had to experience the slow pain and indignity that cancer would inflict, and for that we are thankful.

The last face Bill would have seen was his own, in a bathroom mirror at a hospital. And I hope that in those final moments he received a gift: a chance to see himself as we saw him — a complete, noble and wonderful man