A Tribute To My Father William Burry (1933-2016)


We can take heart in the fact that rather than words, we will use our memories, those images we have in our hearts, to keep that part of him alive within us that we knew so well, and to treasure the legacy that he has left for us all – that legacy of love and devotion which was his life and which, in truth, can never die.


My dad William Maxwell Clyde Burry wrote those words for his uncle Bert’s funeral in 1990.  My niece Bailey found them as part of the archeological dig that is clearing out his basement office.  If the inability to throw away a cherished book or scrap of paper is genetic, then I inherited that both from my mom and dad.   But you know “cherish” is a powerful word and we’ll talk more about that later.


My Dad was known by many titles, and I’m not just talking about his work.  He was known to respond to William, Will, Willy, Bill, Billy, daddy, dad, poppy, pop, Mr. Burry, “Wild Bill” and “you ole devil” (can’t imagine who might have said the last one 53 years of marriage can’t be all foot rubs and romantic dinners can it?).  But far from being a crisis of identify, those many names reflect the vast community which my father built around himself and cherished more than anything (I told you we’d get back to that word.) Dad was born in 1933 –middle of the depression – in Newtown, Bonavista Bay.  It was a world from a different era that many older Newfoundlanders (Newfoundlanders before they even became Canadians) still remember – no roads, no electricity, no running water.  Mom recently told me a comment her elderly grandmother told her while attending a barbeque.  She said, in the old days we cooked inside and went to the bathroom outdoors.  Now we cook outside and go to the bathroom indoors. But somehow in that salt, peaty air, brutal winters and unforgiving ocean, a man was formed that was as gentle as he was determined, serious as he was hilarious, intellectual as he was down-to-earth.


            Dad had a few thoughts about where he wanted to go in his life.  He liked the idea of being an engineer (he was brilliant at mathematics – something I clearly didn’t inherit from him – as my former math teacher and good friend of my father George Wright can attest to. I always joked that the main reason I went into music was because you only needed to count to 4!) He thought about joining the Navy, which I think was another exciting prospect for a young lad growing up by the water.  His parents were not in favour of that one.  So eventually arrived on the idea of teaching, which I think was a perfect example of the right job finding the right man.  A career in teaching, which started with a cherished (there’s that word) stint at Memorial University, gave him both the opportunity to dive head first into the writings of Shakespeare, Rousseau, Nietzche, Aristotle and Einstein (yes, that goofy figure freezing solid with his buddy Chris Hancock in front of an ice fishing hole had a fierce and voracious intellect) but also call up what was perhaps his greatest attribute…an unending desire to make life better for every single person he came into contact with and many, many beyond. 


            Dad will be remembered by many as a teacher, and most notably as the Principal of Gander Collegiate between 1977 and 1988 where he earned the ironic nickname “Wild” Bill.  So many people have spoken to me this week about Dad’s patient and calming nature, and under his leadership Collegiate became a reflection of his desires for his students.  His colleague and friend Wayne Penny was telling me about a staff meeting to deal with a slightly odd, toothless and bedraggled janitor that had the habit of peering in classroom windows and disrupting class.  The discussion became somewhat heated when it was clear dad was about to say something important.  After a moment of pause, he proclaimed “Well what do you want me to do, buy him a pair of false teeth?”


You could become whatever you wanted to be, even if you came from a part of the world that at that time often felt belittled and dismissed by others.  Often belittled and dismissed by ourselves.  Dad never believed that being a Newfoundlander was a liability – it was a gift, and he made sure everyone he ever taught thought that as well. He loved teaching…but you know when his time came to retire, there was no stopping him.  I said “Dad, I’ve only got one more year of high school, why don’t you want and we can go together?”  “No, my son. “ he replied.  That was going to cut into one of his other great loves – the vast outdoors that this beautiful place has to offer.  I know many of you out there shared a cook up out of the woods with dad - or the thrill of hunting a moose, setting rabbit slips or jigging cod – my Uncle Roy and his son Keith, my sister Denise’s husband Terry, Chris Hancock and the by’s that had the cabin down on Big Jonathon, and all the crowd from down Newtown which remained for him, and remains for us, a little slice of windy heaven – I know you were all part of that sacred communion that only comes from moments shared in the great outdoors.


From my own personal experience, at one time I might have thought that  “do whatever you want” attitude I spoke about came back to bite my mom and dad in the behind.  When dad said “do whatever you want” I think in the back of his head he was saying “lawyer, lawyer, lawyer…” When you look back at the careers in that line of the family you can start in 1670 when John Burry came to Greenspond and reads, fisherman, fisherman, fisherman, fisherman, fisherman, fisherman, fisherman janitor, Principal, opera composer.  I don’t think dad always “got” what I was doing, and it was fun to find the crib notes his wallet, but there was never one moment that I didn’t know that Dad was proud of me and valued what I was doing.  That’s one thing about Bill Burry, there was nothing unsaid, nothing left on the table.  You knew you were loved both by words and actions.


Which brings me to the greatest love of Dad’s life – his family.  We all struggle with that – or I know I do – the balance between family and everything else in life that tries to pull you away from them.  And that was never far from his mind.  Denise and I saw him as the most devoted father but I remember in later years dad said he wished he hadn’t been so busy – “Dad, I said, no one can be there all the time,” But the time we spent with him was so rich, so full that it felt like he was with us all the time – even when life took Denise and I far away to the mainland.  So as we grew older daddy became dad and eventually Poppy and Pop.  And the grandkids, well multiply that love a hundredfold.  The first, Bailey spent the first year of her life in our house and the smile on his face every time she woke up said it all.  Rides down to Newtown in Poppy’s Big Red Truck…or should I say “Fruck” meant the world.  Next Mark came along and Poppy was always there for a Piggy Back Ride or to go out trouting.  Although, I often suspect there was a little bit of lip service involved in taking the little kids fishing…Dad probably knew the little ones (me included) wouldn’t have much patience for a long fishing trip so he would truck us up to Deadman’s Pond and be back in time for the evening news.  I don’t think there’s one trout up in Deadman’s Pond…but you know if wasn’t about the fish…it was about that time together. (That didn’t stop me in the last few years saying “Dad I want to go fishing…and somewhere were there are real fish!)


Sixteen years after Mark was born my daughters Blythe and Maeve came along and Bill became a Poppy all over again.  I remember my mother describing my wife Julia as “just like a Newfoundlander” – which you know is a powerful compliment around here  (and Julia thank you so much for everything you have done for us in this hard week)  - despite being just like a Newfoundlander we still felt so far away.  But every time we came back they felt like they were home.  Dad was usually the first one up, listening to CBC and having his tea so the girls would come down and have breakfast with him.  Special quite moments – and for parents of young kids too, you know what I’m talking about – that first night you bring the family home to your parents and you realize you don’t have to get out of bed!  “Should we get up?” Julia would ask. “Oh no,” I’d reply, cuddling back down – “that’s Poppy time…”


That brings me to the one person who as been alluded to throughout this little chat and also that little word “cherish”.  Imagine Abbot without Costello, Fred without Ginger, Lauren Bacall without Humphrey Boggart -  Bill and Jean – or Jean and Bill depending, were one of those love affairs they write poetry about.  My mother Jean, herself a fine teacher, met Dad when she moved to Gander in 1960 – she saw him walking by her door as he was on his way to a date with someone else and she vowed then and there she get a date too.  And I don’t know if you’ve seen photos of dad from that time – he was quite the matinee idol (they say I look a lot like him!) but you know mom was quite the catch herself and he was lucky to get her.  And brother, he knew that.  Great loves are all about sharing – two people bringing their loves, and hopes and dreams together to create a new life – and a legacy reflected in the beautiful faces I’m looking at right now.  Parties out at the club at Square Pond (where did that go?  I want to go there!), endless chats down at Newtown, camping trips around the province, adventures up to the mainland – it was a life fully-lived and a life fully-shared.


Mom, as we all pass through our own grief, I can’t imagine what this must feel like for you.  It feels like a big hole has been left in your life, and I sat on that plane thinking more about you than dad.  But the moment Denise and I saw you, through the tears, we saw the incredible strength within you.  And that’s why you were both the perfect match and perfect compliment to William Burry.  It has been a marriage that has inspired us all, and even though the next chapter of your life will be a change, you will be surrounded by the world and people that you and dad carefully created. That will never change.


Dad knew how to talk, and apparently I inherited that as well.  There is so much to say, but also narratives about Bill that you all have within you.  Thank you so much to everyone who came to share moments with us over the last few days.  I knew the richness of my dad’s life, but it was so heartwarming to see that vast community of his life. He leaves a lot of people to cherish his memory – Roy, Alma, Keith, Valerie and Lisa, Alf (husband to his late sister Bonnie) Karen and Carol Ann and their families -  so many cousins and relations that he always held so dear.  The teaching crowd, the dart boys, the broomball team and all the fellers he got into trouble with.  His church family here at Fraser Road United which meant so much to him and Reverend Kathy as well, we can’t tell you how much your visits have lifted us.  Friends and neighbours have been such a source of strength.


Despite what he may think, a man living alone in a cabin in the woods cannot become great.  We become great by the people that shape us, the people we shape and nurture and the legacy we leave behind.  Check, check and check.


Whenever I came down to visit, Dad would be sitting in on the couch with his tea and before I headed out for the day, I’d ask dad if he needed any help with anything.  He’d look at me, screw up his face and say “Nah, b’y, you go on now.”  Yes, Dad, we will all go on now….but you are coming with us…and we’ll cherish every step.