Remembering Bill McNeill
Former Cuso International volunteer and senior staff member (West Africa and Ottawa) Bill McNeill passed away on March 25, 2018. Bill was a volunteer from 1963-1965 in Nigeria. In 1965 he became the first staff Officer in Nigeria. In 1967 he became CUSO’s West Africa Director and later, Director of Canadian Operations.
The following eulogy was delivered by fellow alumni Barbara (Geddes) Hoffman at his memorial service in Victoria, BC on April 6, 2018. Barbara was a Cuso International volunteer in Sarawak from 1964-66. She married Peter Hoffman (Sarawak 67-69) and both were posted to Kuala Lumpur in 1971 as Field Officers for CUSO Malaysia.
All of us here in St. Barnabas today remember Bill and have come to honour his life and work. Those who knew him only in his retirement years here in Victoria may not recognize the Bill I am going to describe. In his later years, Bill became a quiet, dignified, conservative older man known for his interest in opera, for his cooking and for his hospitality.
In his youth and early maturity, he was also well known for cooking, hospitality and generosity but mainly he was known for being the Executive Director of one of Canada’s largest non-governmental organizations. He was the force behind the rebuilding of the World University Service of Canada. Beginning with a staff of seven in an old house in Ottawa, he created a dynamic organization over the next 17 years, an organization with a network of local committees on Canadian university and college campuses, with hundreds of Canadian professionals serving overseas on development projects, managed by WUSC field offices in 22 countries. Bill became a trusted partner of university presidents, senior civil servants, ambassadors and even some prime ministers from countries in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and South America.
How was it possible for a young man from rural Manitoba who had not the chance to go to high school achieve such a high-profile role?
There are two reasons (in my view). One: he was a risk taker and Two: he was keenly interested in humanity and treated people equally and with respect. He was also lucky in the sense that his talents fitted the times; he was born at the right time to be able to join CUSO.
CUSO was itself a risky venture started in 1961 with a handful of teachers earning local salaries. Bill joined in 1964. By then he had already taken a number of personal risks. Moving from the Lakehead where he had started work at 13 or 14 as a clerk, to Toronto where he got a job with the CBC working on properties for radio and TV productions, and to Montreal where he enrolled in Sir George Williams University as a mature student. He supported himself there as the Secretary to the head of the English Department – a highly respected academic and teacher who was wheelchair bound. Bill pushed the wheelchair, took dictation and prepared correspondence as he worked his way through the requirements of an English degree.
Once inside CUSO Bill flourished and developed what became his signature ability – finding ways to help people discover their abilities by putting them in challenging jobs. He matched people to jobs often not really knowing whether they could do them but then supporting them to the full.
“Bill was someone who would go to battle for you” one friend wrote. Another said “…. I owe my career to Bill. He hired me at CUSO and promoted me to a Director’s position when other CUSO programs were hesitant about giving opportunities to women.” Bill was ahead of his time in placing women in positions of high responsibility.
He continued to be bold with his programming and staffing decisions at WUSC, suggesting to one couple that they choose which one would be the Field Officer. Another quotation: “Bill was a wonderful boss. Alive to possibilities. Bill put the Globe and Mail on my desk open at an item on Canada initiating a program of citizen sponsorship of refugees. After an hour long discussion of the pros and cons Bill’s keen awareness of the risks gave way to a clear-sighted assessment of the benefits possible for both the refugee students and for the Canadian students. It is a legacy of Bill’s that more Canadian should know about”.
The WUSC years coincided with the rapid increase in the aid and development budget of the Canadian government and the need for implementing partners. WUSC under Bill’s direction grew rapidly – the Comores Islands needed French teachers; Nigeria wanted English teachers and funded their recruitment; Bill opened programs in Benin, Mali, Lesotho, Botswana and Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, Indonesia. The small island states of the eastern Caribbean. Peru. The government of Peru even awarded Bill the Order of Merit for Distinguished Services for securing funding for the installation of water supply services in the slums of Lima.
Bill was not a flamboyant person but he had style, especially in entertaining, and a great sense of humour. His home in Ottawa was full of elegant carpets, original paintings, African sculptures and dominated by the dining room and kitchen, rooms which were central to so much of Bill’s life. The dining room even had a large cage with a West African grey parrot in one corner. Bill loved having people for dinner; or lunch; or for a reception or a sit down dinner for 50 or 60.
And the style and the hospitality continued on display in the Azores where Bill eventually set up cooking school in the granary behind the main residence and guest cottage with its 13 orchards.
Bill loved to surround himself with the people he loved; the more the merrier and at all times.
We will not forget him.