A New Life
Many thoughts went through Bill’s mind as the tramp steamer pulled into Halifax Harbor. He thought of a farm, beautiful green fields and cows, lots of cows. He thought of a happy family, plenty of good food and the chance to be with Mother Nature. Thoughts like these can help a man forget the loneliness of separation. Bill had a new start in a new country. A country where he could live and believe as he wanted. Bill Alexander decided he was going to have it his way.
Bill arrived in Canada in 1952 with a box of nails, screws, bits, a hammer and a saw — materials and tools for building his first home. The immigration inspector laughed when he saw what Bill brought with him. “Didn’t you think we sold those items here in Canada?” he said. Worse, everything rusted on the trip over, so Bill had to dispose of them almost as soon as he disembarked. This was only the first of Bill’s disappointments.
Bill had big expectations for Canada, but the reality was quite different. People made little money in Halifax and the rich lived in big houses on the outskirts of town – much like in his village back home. For a time, he lived in a barracks with other recently arrived immigrants. Disappointed, but never discouraged, Bill found a job as a printer making sixty cents per hour. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to get out of the barracks and pay for a small room over a restaurant. Bill used a broom and some wood to represent the ‘tools of his trade’ — a palette and a brush. He hung this sign out in front of the restaurant to attract attention to his business. Soon he began painting portraits. That brought in a little more money, but it still wasn’t enough. So he took a night job as a janitor in a hotel. He worked two jobs and painted in his spare time. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.
The owner of a clothing store was the subject of one of Bill’s first portraits. He hung the painting in his store. One day, a young woman saw it and asked to meet the artist. When she met Bill she asked him to give her painting lessons. At first Bill was reluctant because of the language barrier, but Audrey wore him down and he began teaching her. One evening, over dinner, Bill told Audrey about how he had to leave his family in Germany. He hoped, one day, to bring them to Canada. At the rate he was earning money, though, that would take quite a while.
A few days later, Audrey showed up at Bill’s apartment. She drove him to the immigration office, took $600 out of her purse and paid for a ticket for Bill’s wife and daughter to come to Canada. Bill, shocked, told Audrey he could not even begin to think about how he could pay her back. Audrey told Bill this was her gift to him. Bill faced many hardships and disappointments in the first years after his arrival in America. He always seemed to find people, though, who cared about him and did what they could to help him. Audrey introduced Bill to many influential people and Bill painted their portraits. He painted so many portraits that soon his customers started asking for lessons. At first, Bill refused. However, he did not want to disappoint his new friends so he became a teacher.
Bill held many jobs during the years he lived in Halifax. One Christmas season, the head of Union Station asked Bill if he would like to work on the railroad, as a pantry man, to earn extra money. This was a prestigious job and Bill would have an opportunity to travel and visit more of this new land he called home. One of the stations was in Winnipeg. During a brief layover Bill jumped off the train and visited some of the printing plants. Bill learned they would pay him five times what he was earning in Halifax for the same job. Later, in Toronto, he discovered he could earn almost ten times as much. It didn’t take Bill long to decide to pack his belongings and move his family to Toronto.
Bill was a good worker and a great printer. He excelled at repairing and upgrading old equipment that many of the companies possessed. But the best printing job was at a company that also provided microfilming services. Bill knew nothing about microfilming but he liked to learn new things even if they were difficult at first. He took apart the microfilming machine, learned how it worked and even made improvements to the device. Bill and his boss became good friends. Shortly before Bill left Toronto, his boss offered Bill the printing side of the business.
Toronto was a big city and more than one person exploited Bill’s trusting, naïve nature. There were times when Bill was so disappointed he wanted to return to Germany. He refused, nonetheless, to let negativity stop him from achieving his dream of a better life. Upon reflection in later years, he said that he always felt the good times outweighed the bad.
In spite of Bill’s early successes, he always felt he could do more. He was like the itinerant painter of his village when he was a boy. Perhaps he missed the wandering he did as a youth. Once again, Bill took to the open road to, as he put it, “…capture the images of this mighty country on canvas.” Bill still had much to learn. And he had a big decision to make.