What a Life: Wilfred Nicholson

·7 min read
Wilfred Nicholson built cedar strip canoes in his home shop.  (Submitted by Ron Vincent - image credit)
Wilfred Nicholson built cedar strip canoes in his home shop. (Submitted by Ron Vincent - image credit)

I received an email a few weeks ago from Melanie Nicholson in Montague.

She read a few of my What a Life stories, where I profile the lives of Islanders who have died in the last year and a half, during the COVID-19 era.

"It is a lovely way to honour those who have been lost during the pandemic in the absence of the normal ways of mourning," she wrote. "I would like to pitch a profile of my own father, Wilfred Nicholson of Montague, who passed away on May 22, 2021."

A few days later, I spent an evening getting to know Wilfred.

I called up three people who knew him best.

A 52-year love story

His wife, Carol, calls theirs a 52-year love story. It all started when she moved to Montague from up west to take a job in a government office.

"I met Wilfred at a house party in August of 1969," she said. "And I knew from the minute I met him he was the one. He was just so…"

She paused, searching for the word, "...not outgoing. Warm and friendly are the words you could use to describe him."

"Did he ask you out right away?" I asked.

"No he didn't. There was a restaurant in the mall where I worked, and the next day he come over and asked me if I wanted to go with him to a Lions Club corn boil with him that weekend."

They were married the next year and started a family.

Submitted by Melanie Nicholson
Submitted by Melanie Nicholson

Wilfred was a trained electrician. He worked for years in the local building supply yard. He and Carol bought the business in 1979 and renamed it Montague Building Supply.

His daughter Melanie said people came for lumber and hardware, but they stayed for his quick wit.

'Impressive to watch'

"He used to steer entire conversations so that he could tee himself up for jokes, just so he could make the person he was talking to laugh," she said. "Customers absolutely loved it. He teased. And they would come in just for that teasing."

"That's a real skill, right?" I said. "To be able to, sort of, produce a conversation so it has the end result where he can hit that beat."

"It was actually impressive to watch," she said. "Because you could see it, him working it out in his head. To get you to the point where you would say something that he could react to exactly the way he wanted to."

Submitted by Melanie Nicholson
Submitted by Melanie Nicholson

Ron Vincent was minister at Hillcrest United Church in Montague in those early days of the shop.

"I used to drop in to his business and we'd have a talk there," said Ron. "I'd stop in, we'd have a cup of tea, and I'd go on my way. And we developed a friendship over that time.

"It was always a nice break in a day to sit down and spend some time with Wilfred. He had a great sense of humour. We always had a good laugh. People around in the office must have wondered what on earth we were laughing at, but it didn't take much."

Ron said it can be hard to make friends when you're a minister. But with Wilfred it was easy.

"You can know a lot of people, which in my work I did. And if you're really fortunate, you'll have two or three really good friends. It's hard to develop a friendship where you can share confidences, for example. You just can't do that. But we had a friendship apart from that. He had a bit of a weird sense of humour, and I did too. Carol will tell you that."

A man at ease with himself

Ron, Carol, and Melanie all describe Wilfred as a man who was at ease with himself. He was easy to like.

Melanie said all her friends thought he was the cool, fun dad. She remembers one day when she was about 11, her dad found an old sled with metal runners that had gotten rusty.

Wilfred got the idea of dragging it behind his pickup truck to try to wear some of that rust away.

"He put a giant bag of bird seed on the sled to weigh it down so it would really run the rust off of it," remembered Melanie.

"And he took my brother and I with him. One of us — I'm sure he didn't think of it on his own — one of us suggested that instead of the birdseed, maybe we could sit on it and ride behind the truck. Anyway, he let us do that. And we have pictures of us sitting on the sled down an old country road."

I laugh. "Did the both of you sit on it for the ride?" I asked.

"Yes! My mother just found out about this story probably 20 years after it happened. We found the pictures. She had no idea."

"There's no statute of limitations on a mum getting upset about something like that," I said.

"No there is not!" she said.

"No there is not," I repeated.

"Well, when I heard it, I thought, yeah, well that's something he would do," said Carol. "And then when she said 'and he took a picture of us doing it,' I thought, my goodness, how could he take a picture when he was driving the truck towing them? But then I thought, you know, he'd do that."

Submitted by Melanie Nicholson
Submitted by Melanie Nicholson

After retiring in the '90s, Wilfred kept busy with part-time work back at the local building supply store.

He built cedar strip canoes in his home shop.

He was involved with a number of groups, including the P.E.I. Gaelic Society and the Junior Achievers program.

Melanie has been staying with her mum in Montague since her dad died. She's been wearing his hat and jacket as she goes on her morning hike. She feels like she's gotten to know him a little better in the past few months.

Submitted by Melanie Nicholson
Submitted by Melanie Nicholson

"Since he passed away, my mother and I have started to clean up his workshop. And we're finding all these little gadgets that he made to make things a little bit easier. Like, workshop hacks to make the lawnmower work a little bit better. He's got it all MacGyvered up with bungee cords.

"And when he was building his canoes, he used to make all these little gadgets to help him centre the cedar strips and that sort of thing. And we're finding all these little inventions that he had out in the workshop that we had never seen before. But he just saw a need to be able to do something, and he took whatever he had out there in the workshop and made it into something that he could use to do the job better."

"Wow," I said.

"I always knew he was clever, but I didn't realize he was out there inventing little gadgets," she said.

"Can you imagine being that good at something and not showing everyone the second you made this cool thing?" I asked.

"He was never like that," she said. "He was, weirdly enough, always worried he wasn't doing a good job at things. And he didn't like to do things he wasn't doing a good job at."

The good news is, Wilfred seemed to be good at a lot of things. The people who love him remember a man who was at peace with himself. Who was quick to laugh, and took joy in making others laugh.

You really can't say much more than that.

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