William Wallace Robinson was born on Oct. 10, 1948, in Cobourg, Ont., the youngest of three boys for William Wallace and Margaret Robinson. Raised on a farm just outside of nearby Colborne, Bill, who was a quiet yet strong-willed child, learned the value of hard work early on. As small boys, he and older brothers Craig and Vic were in the fields, picking cucumbers and beans. A quarter-acre of each, says Vic, “would buy us our school clothes and give us a trip to the [Toronto] exhibition.” By age 12, says Vic, “We were doing a man’s work.”
Growing up, money was tight, so he and his brothers entertained themselves, fishing for trout in the stream that ran through their property and playing in the cedar trees. Using twine from the bales of hay, Bill, who was always “a good climber,” says Vic, built hammocks high in the trees. In addition to enjoying the view from the top, Bill sought to understand the biology: as a boy, he once told Vic: “If you trim all the way around the bark, the tree will die, because that’s how it’s fed.”
When Bill was 16, his dad, who had been injured in the Second World War, passed away. Soon after, he quit school and began working full-time. After a stint at Winchester-Western, a rifle manufacturer in Cobourg, he worked as an arborist for tree-care companies. “That’s where he really learned to climb,” says Vic. Wearing a safety belt and spurs, it became like second nature to Bill, who was a wiry six foot two, to shimmy up the trunk, chainsaw in hand. He became skilled at cutting branches and felling entire trees.
In his late teens, Bill started dating Mary Ainsworth, whose brothers were his friends. He took her to dances and for walks, in spite of her brothers’ teasing, says Mary, who was four years Bill’s junior. “We would look into each other’s eyes, and we saw something there,” she says. When Mary became pregnant at 16, Bill didn’t skip a beat. “He said, ‘We’re going to have a baby, honey,’ ” she recalls. They were married on July 26, 1969; their son, William Jr., was born in November. (Sheri and Nick followed in 1973 and 1979.)
Bill was not the talkative type, but “he wouldn’t let anyone roll him over,” says Mary. In Colborne, a blue-collar town where “you had to prove your worth as a man by being in physical confrontations,” says Nick, Bill was known as a guy “you didn’t want to mess with.” The fighting and the drinking, however, did not bode well for raising a family, and, in the early ’70s, they moved to Peterborough, says Mary, “so we could get away from all that.”
When Bill started Kawartha Tree Service in 1977, he did so with “just a half-ton, some ropes and a chainsaw,” says Vic. But word of his work ethic and proficiency spread, and he developed a loyal customer base—despite the fact that he wasn’t the cheapest arborist in town. (The business cards he later had printed read: “The sweetness of low prices can never counterbalance the bitterness of poor quality.”) Supplementing hands-on knowledge with books and videos, he became adept at identifying tree species and diseases. When he went out walking, says Mary, “He’d always check the trees and make sure they were okay.” Though the job was risky, he never had any close calls.
Bill, who wasn’t a particularly affectionate, hands-on dad, “led by example,” says Nick. He put in 12-hour workdays and, outside of Nick’s hockey tournaments, never took vacation. Says Mary, “If he could have worked 24-7, he would’ve.” (An avid Maple Leafs fan, Hockey Night in Canada was his relaxation.) In tune with nature, he relied on herbal remedies, and hunted only for food. A trained machinist, he did his own repairs. Even on weekends, from the moment he woke up, not 10 minutes would go by before “he was outside working,” says Bill Jr.
By the time the kids left home, Bill’s relationship with Mary “was falling apart,” she says. When they separated about 10 years ago, he began looking inward, turning to self-help books and audiotapes to soften his temper, says Nick. (Granddaughter Myranda, now 13, became a particular focus.) Even at 60, he scoffed at retirement, and continued scaling trees to great heights. “I’d be huffing and puffing,” says Bill Jr., who started working full-time with his dad at 16, “and I don’t think I ever saw him get stressed out at all.”
On Jan. 20, Bill and his son were in Peterborough, felling some old maple trees that were leaning into the road. The trees appeared to be healthy, and as Bill climbed to about 40 feet, he found no evidence of rot. After he tied in and made a notch, his son applied pressure to the winch. But the tree was hollow, and instead of breaking at Bill’s shoulders, it snapped at his waist, pulling him to the ground. He was taken to hospital, but was unable to withstand the fall. Bill Robinson was 61.
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