The story of Billy Mac

I lost my first grand-parent when I was six years old. My Dad’s father died after he suffered his third heart attack, one month past his 65th birthday and a few months shy of his retirement. I don’t remember him although he is familiar in pictures. In many of those, he had a wide smile and a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. Both my Dad and my Aunt describe him as a devoted family man, a hard worker who was at times both quiet and gregarious. I have a strong recollection from about the time that he passed away, of sensing a benevolent presence in my room as I slept and I believe that it was him. I have held on to this as my only real memory of my grandfather, a warm figure watching from the sidelines, a shimmering link to my past.

Of course, I heard many a story of Bill McTavish as I was growing up. He was apparently very musical – he could play a few instruments including a magnificent silver-plated saxophone that sat in my parent’s basement for many years. He could also play the piano and would play any tune just by listening to it. He was also apparently a “Minstrel” – performing for others with a blackened face. Sadly, this was considered acceptable in the 1930’s but is for me, a deplorable act of racism. For a time, he was a professional musician, leading his band “Billy Mac and the Rhythym Kings”.

and the RK

Billy Mac and the Rhythym Kings @ 1935 – Bill McTavish third from left

He was always a hard-working man, eventually landing a job at Dofasco in Hamilton, where he stayed for over 30 years. He worked in logistics, planning materials and production, leading up to his retirement. The fatal heart attack was apparently his third, he had two previously and each one had led to a modification of his work. He apparently felt unhappy with the desk job that he was given and was looking forward to his retirement in a few months, when the final heart attack claimed his life. Prior to his work at Dofasco, he played with his band and he started out running bets and selling newspaper ads for the horse races. I am told that he was not just gifted musically, but mathematically as well.

William James McTavish (r) ca 1922

A young Bill McTavish on the right in Hamilton, dressed for success @ 1923

William James “Bill” McTavish was born in the small town of Ripley in Huron Township in Bruce County, Ontario. He was the second child for his parents Edward James “Ted” McTavish and Ellen Emma Sanderson. His older sister was named Irene Beatrice. His parents had a tailoring shop and owned a coal yard in Ripley but sold them and moved the family to Hamilton, Ontario in about 1918. There, Ted would operate as a landlord on a few properties and open a small tailoring shop on Barton Street.

and Willie

Irene Beatrice and William James McTavish @ 1913 in Ripley, Ontario

I believe that Bill met my grandmother Kathaleen “Kay” Lendzioszek around that tailoring shop. Kathaleen was the eldest daughter of a Polish couple who lived in the Barton neighbourhood of Hamilton, right behind St. Stanislaus Catholic church on Barton Street. The tailoring shop would have been a little further down from the Church but within the same block. Bill and Kay were married on July 30th, 1938 in Hamilton. On the marriage registration, I was surprised to see that Bill’s marital status was listed as “divorced”. This had caused a bit of an issue since Kay was a devout Catholic and Bill was a divorcee. That meant that she had to leave the Catholic Church but luckily, it didn’t mean that her parents would not support the marriage.

marriage two

Ontario Marriage Registration – 30 July 1938

wedding photo

Wedding photo for Bill and Kay (middle) with both sets of parents

l-r Sophie and Stanley Lendzioszek, Kay, Bill, Ellen and Ted McTavish

While divorce was not un-heard of in the 1930’s, it certainly was not very common. There were very specific grounds for obtaining a divorce including cruelty, adultery or neglect. Bill’s first marriage was to a woman named Lavinia Thomas, they were married June 1st, 1929 in Hamilton. Divorce papers were filed in 1935 and were finalized on February 1st, 1937. The petition was based on claims of infidelity on Bill’s part. There was a private investigator hired and allegedly, Bill was living with another woman named Mary Cameron. My Aunt defiantly tells another story! That is while Bill was away on tour with his band, that Lavinia took up with another man. Bill returned home to find them in bed together – what a scandal! In the end, it does not matter who was at fault or even if the adultery ever did actually happen, but the divorce was granted. Reviewing the divorce record at the Archives of Ontario was enlightening and managing the sensitivity of the information was a new challenge, but it helps paint a picture.

A young Bill McTavish was seemingly full of energy, very personable, a born entertainer and salesman. He was unafraid of running in some interesting circles during his youth. Upon his first marriage at the age of 21, he was a news agent. He led a band, he toured, he performed. Divorced six years later, he became a clerk, married a young Polish girl. He started work at Dofasco and over 20 years, fathered three children. He went to Church, attended all of his son’s baseball and hockey games, ate dinner with the family, entertained friends in his home, worked hard. He was the penultimate family man according to my Aunt. Somewhat quiet and unassuming, happy and certainly well-liked and respected by friends and colleagues.

Bill and Kay 1938

Bill and Kay McTavish @ 1938

As I said, I didn’t know him but I do wish I had. It seems that this is almost a tale of two Bills – one young, wild and free and the other mature, stable and loyal. Both sound like a great man, my grandpa, quite a character.

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