Bill Chalmers must have known that he would never get the chance to finish building that last batch of toys.
He’d been doing it for decades. He’d design a toy, gather all the raw materials in the workshop of his West Vancouver home and spend countless hours every year crafting unique, beautiful, fun little wooden toys that he would then donate to the Christmas Bureau to give out to children in need across the North Shore. His wife Margaret estimates in nearly 30 years of work he made more than 6,000 toys to be given away at Christmastime.
But they heard the word: terminal. Bill kept on crafting into his 90s, until his body couldn’t do it anymore. He passed away on July 8, 2021.
After six decades of marriage, Bill and Margaret were inextricably linked. Bill’s presence was particularly strong in the workshop, and as Margaret eased herself into the process of getting on with her life following Bill’s death, she decided she wanted those tools to be passed into the hands of people who would appreciate them and wield them well.
That’s how David Martin and Frank Vitz, longtime residents of the same little West Vancouver cul-de-sac that Margaret and Bill lived in, found themselves in Bill’s workshop earlier this year. It’s a beautiful space, with tools mounted on the wall, photos of Bill hard at work (North Shore News photographer Mike Wakefield has shot Bill working on the toys several times over the years – it’s always one of his favourite assignments, he says), and lots of other neat memorabilia packed into a space with a lovely view of the West Vancouver waterfront out the window.
“It’s like a little museum or shrine to him,” says Vitz, of what it’s like to stand in Bill’s workshop.
Margaret was hoping her neighbours would find some tools to take home and put to good use, but as they soaked in the spirit of the workshop, Martin and Vitz kept coming back to a box of toy parts, bits and pieces of a wooden truck designed by Bill. It was clear what the finished product was supposed to be, but the toys still needed a lot of work.
“Frank and I both had the same idea at the same time,” says Martin, adding that both he and Vitz had heard of Bill’s charitable work for Family Services of the North Shore's Christmas Bureau. “We asked Margaret if it would be possible for us to finish the job that Bill had started. … We really wanted to make sure that we had a chance to finish off the work that he began.”
Margaret quickly agreed, and over the next several months the two men set about the task of completing the order – 50 wooden trucks bound for the Christmas Bureau. They were lucky in that Bill, even in his ailing state, had given the project a great start.
“He'd done a lot of the hard work, so a lot of the actual pieces had already been cut,” says Martin. “The design is his design … we were very much following his lead. So we were kind of Santa's little helpers.”
The two men worked out a sort of assembly line system, with each working on one little piece of the design before handing it over to the other.
“Somebody would be working on hoods and somebody else would be working on wheels, and sanding things down,” says Martin. “It really was like Santa’s workshop. And we really did feel this wonderful connection to Bill. It was such a lovely gesture that he did every year, and it was very special for us to be continuing the work he’d started.”
They soon realized, however, just how much work it was to make a toy fit for a child’s curious hands.
“Each piece had to be cut perfectly, and then sanded, and then glued sequentially, all the little parts painted,” says Vitz. “Even though we had an assembly line – we thought we were really organized – it just was a lot of work. And Bill not only did this every year, but he designed them and made model changes."
They finished the 50 trucks, though, and what they produced looked very much like the wooden wonders that Bill had created countless times over the years. It’s the simplicity, charm and quality of the toys that make them stand out in a modern world, says Martin.
“In a digital world, everything is a copy of a copy of a copy,” he says. “But these were made one-by-one, by hand, with real wood and real materials. And that’s very much, I think, what Bill was – he was a person who believed in traditions and carrying things forward, in a world that is increasingly mechanized and full of technology.”
“It felt really good to finish Bill's project and make one last hurrah,” adds Vitz.
But did the toys meet Bill’s precise standards?
“They’re absolutely beautiful,” says Margaret. “Bill would have been so pleased.”
She’s grateful, but not surprised, by the work done by her neighbours to carry on Bill’s legacy.
“They’re the kind of neighbours that I feel blessed to have,” she says. “My neighbours in the cul-de-sac have been wonderful over this bad period, and for them to just leap up and say, ‘Sure, we’ll do that for you,’ is really something to be admired.”
In early December, Margaret made the delivery to the Christmas Bureau, one final batch of toys from Bill Chalmers, made with the help of a couple of caring neighbours. It wasn’t easy for her to drop off the toys by herself.
“It was hard,” she says. “It was hard because we’ve been doing this for over 20 years, and Bill was always the one that was involved and I would go and help him. But for me to do this myself – yeah, it was hard.”
It is, however, a fitting way to cement Bill’s legacy as a North Shore Christmas treasure, and it’s a legacy that will endure, says Martin, just like those sturdy wooden toys will endure.
“I'm sure there are hundreds and hundreds of households across the North Shore that have the toys that Bill has given over the years, and I think that's a wonderful legacy,” he says. “They’ll never know Bill, they’ll never know the person behind [the toys], but I’d like to think that they are a part of the memories from the Christmases of the past.”
To see that final batch of toys, so beautifully finished by caring neighbours, land in the hands of deserving children would have brought Bill great joy, says Margaret.
“If it’s possible for him to even realize what’s been done,” she says, “he would be delighted.”