The apprentice

Retired schoolteacher found his sense of adventure as Farley Mowat’s hired hand

By Terry Rice

Rudy Pilz was in the middle of his tool and die apprenticeship when the company he was working for burnt to the ground.

It was 1967 and for the 20-year-old, options for a new apprenticeship were limited.

That’s when he met Farley McGill Mowat in the small town streets of Port Hope, Ontario.

“We got along well and he hired me shortly after,” recalls Pilz.

Brought on as a hired hand for Mowat’s Port Hope property, Pilz would spend his days doing yard work, painting and other menial labour.

But it’s the night-life he recalls first.

“I can remember the parties,” Pilz says with a chuckle. “Farley would hold court with the literati. [Pierre] Berton would be there…David Blackwood, Jack McLelland the publisher.”

Sitting at a window table in a small Thai restaurant in London, Ontario, Pilz, now 67-years-old, recounts story after story (with prompting from his wife Diane) about those “formative years” with Mowat.

“And I remember garbage day too,” Pilz said. “Farley would ask me to line up all the scotch bottles on the side of the curb. I’d have about 50 empty scotch bottles all lined up. I’m sure it annoyed most people in Port Hope.”

Describing Mowat as “larger than life” Pilz remembers his booming voice, which he says made up for his short stature. He also recalls encounters with Mowat’s father Angus and his second wife Claire who he remembers as gentle and beautiful.

Beyond the to-do lists, the young apprentice and an already famous Canadian author would find common ground in their love of the water and sailing.

Farley Mowat - The Boat Who Wouldn't Float book coverIn fact, Pilz was tasked with caring for The Happy Adventurer, a double-masted schooner made famous in The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float, one of Mowat’s more autobiographical works about his time living in Newfoundland.

Pilz recounts caring for the thirty-eight foot, seven and a half ton boat that would connect an impressionable teenager and the gregarious Mowat.

“It was double hulled,” he said. “They just slapped a second set of planking on the outside. The [original] wood had been “pickled” and ran well in salt water but when it came into fresh water it deteriorated quickly.”

But it wasn’t all work.

They would go sailing together and Pilz recollects a particular trip out in the Port Hope harbour.

“We were out in the harbour and felt a bump on the side of the boat – I’m sure it was a carp or something. Shortly after he postulated to the local paper that dogfish sharks were coming into the harbour from the St. Lawrence Seaway.”

And soon after, people were reporting that shark sightings were visible from Ontario Place.

Back on land, Pilz also recalls Mowat’s love of books.

“He bought the doctor’s house in Port Hope. In the house there was a very long narrow space that use to be the dispensary.  He had it floor to ceiling in books on both sides and at the far end was a toilet, he says laughing. You could have spent your life in there without getting bored.”

Pilz admits their time together was short put the impact was long lasting.

In 1968 he would hitch hike across Canada.

He settled down and spent more than a decade working in tool and die and manufacturing engineer. And while working at Weatherhead Company of Canada in St.Thomas, Ontario he had the opportunity to teach two courses at Fanshawe College.

“It was then I realized how little I knew about teaching. But I knew I wanted to go to teacher’s college,” he said.

He completed a one-year diploma of education at Western University in 1982 and was hired almost immediately at Lord Dorchester Secondary School in Dorchester, Ontario where he had a 25-year career.

In those early years of teaching he would complete his degree “by extension” working during the day and taking courses at Western at night.

Throughout his career he would teach auto mechanics, woodworking, art, English, careers and media studies.

Beyond the classroom his personal life was equally eclectic – never losing that Farley-infused sense of adventure and curiosity.

He was a champion in “eventing” with his prized horses. An award-winning Bouvier breeder. Enduro and motor cross racer. Hereford cattle breeder.

And in retirement?

A Beekeeper. Organic farmer. Foodie. French horn player. A judge at rare breed dog shows. And world traveler taking two trips a year on average.

Rudy Pilz is a universal man, with a curiosity and zest for life that is tough to match.

“I learned my sense of adventure from Farley and my sense of caring from Claire,” he said.

The apprentice has come full circle and 25 years worth of high school graduates have set sail on their own life adventures – most certainly inspired by a little bit of Rudy.