Recovering from a broken hip, Bill Fitzpatrick arrived at the 49th Parallel Grocery store this past November where he’d planned to watch the Light Up parade from owner Wayne Richmond’s second floor office as the two had so often done in the past.
“I’d arranged for a wheelchair and for three of the big guys to pick him up and get him up the stairs (to the office),” said Richmond. “Bill wouldn’t have anything to do with it…he walked up the stairs. There was no way he was going to ride in a wheelchair.”
The colourful glow of lights reflected back in his eyes one last time. Fitzpatrick, the visionary of the Festival of Lights, died on June 20 at the age of 79.
His determination, or pitbull personality depending on who you asked, was a hallmark of why he was so well known in the community.
He moved to Ladysmith in the 1970s and was involved with a committee that was struck in an effort to revitalize the downtown core during a period of transition for the town.
“I got some people who believed in my vision and away we went. It was not an easy job to sell,” Fitzpatrick told the Chronicle this past November.
Light Up aimed to persuade local shoppers to open their wallets and support local businesses. It’s since grown to be a major tourist attraction for Ladysmith, each year attracting thousands on the last Thursday in November.
A team of a handful of volunteers helped put on the first Light Up, among them were Lynne De Lucia and Chuck Perrin.
Mason remembers Fitzpatrick saying to him one day during the lead up to the inaugural Festival in 1987: “What are you doing on your day off ?…You need to come and help me hang lights. He said ‘I need somebody to climb ladders. I don’t do ladders’.”
By the same token, Fitzpatrick phoned up Duck Paterson and asked him to pay a visit to his big house on Second Avenue to talk Light Up.
“I knock on the door and he’s got his white bathrobe on and he had these these pink slippers that were bigger than a Persian cat….I just looked at these slippers and said ‘fuzzy slippers’,” Paterson said, recalling how Fitzpatrick had a vast antiques collection.
“That’s really how I got involved was because Bill asked me if I could handle the volunteers.”
Fitzpatrick had a vision that involved a colour scheme and often dropped off boxes to businesses downtown to have them help with replacing bulbs. He also organized “screwing parties” where volunteers gathered to swap out bulbs and ‘screw’ in the new ones.
Light Up became something Ladysmith could rally around.
“I was the one that threw the switch and I just listened to the crowd and they were clapping and just really excited,” Fitzpatrick said of the first year.
“That was first moment really where I could see that this is definitely going to work and so it just kept on going.”
He stayed closely involved with Festival for another seven years before finding the climate of Thailand suited him better than the damp Vancouver Island winters.
Fitzpatrick also owned commercial real estate on First Avenue that he rented out and returned to Ladysmith for a couple of months each summer, staying with friend Bruce Mason.
The two met while Mason was working at Home Hardware on High Street in the 1970s. He remembers very clearly meeting Fitzpatrick for the first time.
“What he wanted was escargot tongs,” Mason said. “I told him I really think nobody is going to carry them around here because we’re really not that posh, and he said ‘well I am’.”
In those early days Fitzpatrick worked in a construction camp when the Revelstoke Dam was being built between 1978-1983 and would only really be in Ladysmith on weekends.
Fitzpatrick lived until his mid-teens in a northern Ontario town called Blind River, where he said ‘all everyone ever does is chop wood and trap beavers.’
A city boy, he left in his mid-teens and would eventually end up in Vancouver before moving to Ladysmith.
“Bill just found he got accepted for who he was, not what he was, and so he became part social fabric of the town,” Mason said.
Shortly after he retired in the 1980s was when Fitzpatrick became more interested in getting Ladysmith to ‘think big’ and served as president with the Chamber of Commerce.
“He was a big promoter of Ladysmith and was always looking for that angle,” said Mason, remembering that Fitzpatrick once suggested to city council when the trees were being planted along the Trans-Canada Highway that they should put in palm trees.
“The town didn’t see it that way and he always kind of grumbled about that and that at least every second tree should have been a palm tree.”
Following his return from Thailand after several years of living on and off abroad he became involved in the Ladysmith Little Theatre, serving on the board.
“He always had really good smarts about the right way to approach difficult situations,” Mason said. “He was always very proud of the theatre and I think in his mind it was equal to the Light Up as a success.”
The two were great friends so much so that Fitzpatrick once pulled up in his white Cadillac one day while Mason was visiting his mother. He told him they needed to skip town because he was so flustered to the point of having heart palpitations.
“I asked if I should pack an overnight bag and good thing I said that because we ended up in Ontario,” Mason said. “He was like that, bigger than life.”
In his later years Fitzpatrick moved to Duncan and still found ways to give back to the community, and in particular the Cowichan Tribes.
“He was kind of considered an elder of sorts by the Cowichan Tribes because he had been really kind to them,” said Mason.
Fitzpatrick once visited a First Nations man for months while he was in hospital to read him the newspaper because nobody ever came to see him.
Fitzpatrick’s own health had started to deteriorate after suffering a fall last September and he developed a bad flu while being treated in hospital.
He was then diagnosed in January with pancreatic cancer.
“True to Bill’s philosophy in life he said to me ‘well, I don’t know any other way to live but when things get tough you just put your head down and move forward’,” Mason said.
Fitzpatrick told the Chronicle last year that he’s elated that Festival continues to be a growing success and gave credit to the volunteers.
“Ladysmith is a wonderful town for support,” he said. “We’re a small town but that doesn’t necessarily mean we can’t think big.”
Paterson said he hopes his friend knew how ‘big’ of an impact he had in the community.
“I just hope that he knew what he’d done because it made a mark,” Paterson said. “He saw Ladysmith as a place that people want to come to. There’s something special about the community and he saw it right.”