THE END

WILLIAM NATHANIEL GILBERT 1944-2006

A Gold Wing rider and a tough-minded judge, he liked to do everything with his wife—even work

NICHOLAS KÖHLER May 15 2006
THE END

WILLIAM NATHANIEL GILBERT 1944-2006

A Gold Wing rider and a tough-minded judge, he liked to do everything with his wife—even work

NICHOLAS KÖHLER May 15 2006

WILLIAM NATHANIEL GILBERT 1944-2006

THE END

A Gold Wing rider and a tough-minded judge, he liked to do everything with his wife—even work

William Nathaniel Gilbert was born in Edmonton’s working-class Calder neighbourhood, just by the Canadian National rail yards, on Oct. 24,1944. His father Herbert, a train conductor who had arrived in Canada from England as a child, met his wife Jean, the daughter of a train engineer, in Bubsy, Alta. Their three children—Margaret, William, whom they called “Billy,” and David, the youngestall had occasion to find their mother, a teacher, at the front of their classrooms, “subbing.” Recalls David: “We had to be on our best behaviour.”

At school, Billy excelled. At home, he and David broke strict rules to stay away from the rail yards, where getting nabbed meant a reprimand for their father from the yard bosses. The pair were seldom caught. When David, the more mischievous of the two, did find trouble, Billy, older by four years, reminded him his behaviour reflected badly on the family.

“Even in those days,” recalls David,

“he was very judgmental.”

While at the University of Alberta, where Billy—known now as Bill—earned a degree in commerce before entering law school, his relationship with Lois, a high school sweetheart, deepened. They married in 1967 and had two daughters, Melanie and Lisa. Articling brought the couple to Peace River, Alta., a town of just a few thousand 500 km northwest of Edmonton, where Bill would spend the following two decades. Within a few years, Bill, working primarily as a divorce lawyer, had made partner in his firm. Meanwhile, he played slow-pitch baseball, calling upon friends with his mitt. In the early 1980s, his marriage faltered. Soon, with Lois and the kids gone to Edmonton, Bill found himself alone. That changed with a blind date in 1986.

Bill’s law partner, Larry Hryniuk, was seeing a girl named Brenda, whose sister, Norma, a radiology technician, lived in Calgary. Larry and Brenda made the arrangements. When Bill and Norma met in April at a country-and-western bar, they step-danced the night away. It was, says Norma, “love at first sight.” By the following December—after a wedding in Hawaii—Norma had relocated to Peace River. (Larry and Brenda also ended up marrying.)

Live years later Bill, tired of his divorce practice, wanted an outone that came with his appointment as a provincial court judge in 64

Calgary. On their arrival, Bill and Norma relished walking anonymously through the streets of the city (in Peace River, everyone knew their names and sought Bill’s free legal advice). Bill dove into his work, first in the civil, then in the criminal division. He was soon known as a fair but tough judge who was not afraid of stiff sentences. “I don’t think anyone would ever accuse Bill of being a pushover, let’s put it that way,” says Judge Sandra Hamilton. “But he always had a

great deal of compassion for people as well.” To a car thief from St. Catharines, Ont., who pleaded guilty in 1997, Bill said: “Next time you’re through this way, just keep on going.” He sentenced two boys who vandalized a church one Halloween to guard the church the following year rather than go trickor-treating.

Bill himself was in hot water in the summer of 2004 when, during a public fatality inquiry into the death of 18-year-old Nadia Kanji, a McGill student who died in a parachuting accident outside Calgary, he toured the parachuting facility with his wife at his side. The media were not amused, suggesting the visit was too casual for the inquiry. “Maybe they thought it was more a social outing as opposed to Bill checking it out—which was not the case,” says Norma. “We just—we did everything together.”

Bill bought himself a Gold Wing touring bike and joined the Gold Wing Road Riders Association, whose members rode alongside him—decked out in leather chaps and a jacket-with little inkling he was a judge (he often told new ffiendsat least initially-only that he worked for the government). He and Norma, who sat behind him, toured the U.S. and Mexico by bike; at the birth of a new granddaughter, they jumped on the Gold Wing to go to Edmonton (“Not too many grandparents travel like this,” Norma recalls saying). Another year they attended the raucous Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota, taking in the sights—some of which were barely licit. Bill, says Norma, “just sat back with a smile and watched.” But meanwhile, Bill’s heart was hardening. The judge learned he was suffering from a rare blood disease—amyloidosis—that attacks the organs with fibrous proteins. In Bill’s case, the disease focused on his heart. Chemotherapy, he had hoped, would prime him for a new and softer heart. He died on April 23, a transplant just outside his grasp. BY NICHOLAS KÖHLER

NICHOLAS KÖHLER