When new neighbours moved into the 3800-block of West 18th, William “Bill” Davies was always the first person they met.
He remembered everyone’s names. He mowed lawns for people who worked or who were retired. He went on walks with pockets stuffed with dog treats. He had keys to everyone’s houses, either to tend to their homes during vacations or if someone forgot their own keys.
And though Davies passed away July 25 at 81, his legacy of being a good neighbour lives on.
Bill and his wife Shirley moved into Dunbar in 1957 on the day of their second wedding anniversary.
“We were the youngsters and our neighbourhood was filled with old people,” said Shirley.
Caring for neighbours was a year-round affair for the family, recalled daughter Debbie DeWolff.
“My brother and I were always expected to look after the old people on the block,” said DeWolff. “So when it snowed, we were expected to shovel their sidewalks and in the fall we were expected to rake the leaves. In the spring, we were expected to bring fresh cookies down and have tea with the elderly people... It was just something we grew up to believe that you did anyway, and as the years went on, my mom and dad were kind of a source of neighbourhood activity.”
The Davies house is fittingly at the centre of the block, the hub of anticipated block parties visited even by police, firefighters with their trucks, former neighbours and the curious of the 3900-block.
“That’s where the cookies were,” said DeWolff. “That’s where the swing set was, by the little swimming pool. It was a place to kick the can.”
“It was required, laughingly, one must start the block party with a bowl of Bill’s chili,” said Shirley.
Another ritual was the New Year’s Eve parade, complete with bagpiping. Everyone bundled up and marched down frosty sidewalks at midnight and the evening always ended with fireworks and champagne. Some children slept at six in the evening to rest for countdown festivities.
The area is vibrant with friendships but neighbours credit Bill and Shirley as the glue. Shirley returned food containers never empty but filled with goodies. Children who forgot to bring lunches were welcomed over for a bite. In the community, Shirley was a Brownie leader and head of many committees at school.
Bill, a former electrician with B.C. Hydro and all-around handyman, hung around the nearby Dunbar Vacuum and Shoppers Drug Mart just to make sure everyone was OK. Once, he chased two burglars out of his house with a two-by-four, striking one and denting their vehicle.
Every neighbour has a Bill story.
Chris Donaldson met Bill when he moved to the neighbourhood nine years ago. But he got to know him more when one day when he found Bill in Donaldson’s living room watching TV on the couch.
“You left your front door open,” Bill told him.
“It was kind of annoying to be honest,” said Donaldson. “But at the same time, it wasn’t, as he was genuinely concerned.”
John Beach, a resident of the block for 26 years, remembered trying to turn off the water main before leaving for vacation with his family. “The whole thing came off in my hand; the full force of city water pressure shot across my basement,” said Beach. “Nobody has one of those keys that shuts off the water at the street level. Of course, Bill had one.”
Joe and Jenny Belanger met Bill the moment they arrived at the house in 1979. He proceeded to unload half their moving truck himself and helped around ever after.
“I never did anything without Bill lending a hand,” said Joe.
“He expected to be called, really,” added Jenny.
Today, the whole neighbourhood is rejuvenated with young families and new homes. Coming full circle, Shirley said she and Bill took over the role of old people.
When Bill was diagnosed with cancer, Donaldson worked with neighbours and the city to grant Bill and Shirley the key to the block and a certificate from Mayor Gregor Robertson as a tribute to “the Mayor of West 18th.”
Ten-year-old Armon Nouri thanked Bill for the life lessons in a card: “I am so sorry about any negative things that have happened to you in your life. Every day I wake up thinking about how to make the world a better place. You are the reason that my life is so happy and why I love this block...”
There’s talk in Vancouver about loneliness and isolation, but for Bill and Shirley, there was no big secret to having relationships with neighbours: just say hi and show little gestures of being interested in others’ lives. That’s all it took to bring the block together, and that tradition lives on in the neighbourhood.
In Dunbar, Bill will always be remembered.
“If you knock on any single door on the entire block,” said Donaldson, “somebody will be able to talk about him.”