Retired schoolteacher found adventure in Farley’s lessons

Rudy Pilz, Dpl’82, BA’84, was in the middle of a tool-and-die apprenticeship when the company he was working for burnt to the ground. It was 1967, and options for a new apprenticeship were limited for the 20-year-old.

That’s when he met Farley McGill Mowat in the small town streets of Port Hope, Ont.

“We got along well and he hired me shortly after,” Pilz said.

Brought on as a hired hand for Mowat’s Port Hope property, Pilz spent his days doing yard work and painting, along with other menial labour.

But it’s the nightlife he recalls first.

“I can remember the parties,” Pilz said with a chuckle. “Farley would hold court with the literati – (Pierre) Berton would be there. David Blackwood. Jack McLelland, the publisher.”

Mowat, an elder statesmen of Canadian literature, died on May 6, five days short of his 93rd birthday.

In his obituary, The Globe and Mail described Mowat as “a trickster, a ferocious imp with a silver pen, an ardent environmentalist who opened up the idea of the North to curious southerners, a public clown who hid his shyness behind flamboyant rum-swigging and kilt-flipping, and a passionate polemicist who blurred the lines between fiction and facts to dramatize his cause. Above all, he was a bestselling and prolific writer who kept generations of children (and their parents) spellbound by tales of adventures with wolves that were friendlier than people, whales in need of rescue, dogs who refused to cower, owls roosting in the rafters and boats that wouldn’t float.”

He has sold more than 17 million books in 52 languages.

Sitting at a window table in a small Thai restaurant in London, Pilz, now 67-years-old, recounted story after story (with prompting from his wife, Dianelynn Ayotte) about those “formative years” with Mowat.

“And I remember garbage day, too,” Pilz said. “Farley would ask me to line up all the scotch bottles on the side of the curb. I’d have about 50 empty scotch bottles all lined up. I’m sure it annoyed most people in Port Hope.”

Describing Mowat as “larger than life,” Pilz remembered his booming voice, which made up for Mowat’s short stature. He also recalled encounters with Mowat’s father, Angus, and his second wife, Claire, who he remembers as gentle and beautiful.

Beyond the to-do lists, the young apprentice and an already famous Canadian author would find common ground in their love of the water and sailing.

In fact, Pilz was tasked with caring for The Happy Adventurer, a double-masted schooner made famous in The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float, one of Mowat’s more autobiographical works about his time living in Newfoundland.

Pilz recounted caring for the 38-foot, seven-and-a-half-ton boat that would connect an impressionable youth and the gregarious Mowat.

“It was double-hulled,” he said. “They just slapped a second set of planking on the outside. The (original) wood had been ‘pickled’ and ran well in salt water, but when it came into fresh water, it deteriorated quickly.”

But it wasn’t all work.

They would go sailing together and Pilz recollected a particular trip out in the Port Hope harbour.

“We were out in the harbour and felt a bump on the side of the boat – I’m sure it was a carp or something. He postulated to the local paper that dogfish sharks were coming into the harbour from the St. Lawrence Seaway.”

Shortly after, people were reporting shark sightings visible from Ontario Place.

Back on land, Pilz also recalled Mowat’s love of books.

“He bought the doctor’s house in Port Hope. In the house, there was a very long, narrow space that used to be the dispensary. He had it floor-to-ceiling in books on both sides and at the far end was a toilet,” he said laughing. “You could have spent your life in there without getting bored.”

Pilz admited their time together was short put the impact was long lasting.

In 1968, Pilz hitch-hiked across Canada. He eventually settled down and spent more than a decade working in tool and die and manufacturing engineer. And while working at Weatherhead Company of Canada in St. Thomas, he taught two courses at Fanshawe College.

“It was then I realized how little I knew about teaching. But I knew I wanted to go to teacher’s college,” he said.

He completed a one-year diploma of education at Western in 1982 and was hired almost immediately at Lord Dorchester Secondary School in Dorchester, where he spent his 25-year career.

In those early years of teaching, he completed his bachelor’s degree “by extension” working during the day and taking courses at Western at night. Throughout his career, he taught auto mechanics, woodworking, art, English, careers and media studies.

Beyond the classroom, his personal life was equally eclectic – never losing that Farley-infused sense of adventure and curiosity. He was a champion in “eventing” with his prized horses. An award-winning Bouvier breeder. Enduro and motor cross racer. Polled Hereford cattle breeder.

And in retirement? A beekeeper. Organic farmer. Foodie. French horn player. A judge at rare-breed dog shows. And world-traveler, taking two trips a year on average.

Pilz is a universal man, with a curiosity and zest for life that is tough to match.

“I learned my sense of adventure from Farley and my sense of caring from Claire,” he said.