If life were an Olympic sport, you might say Bill Van Moorsel’s timing was poor but his performance podium worthy.
Van Moorsel – known formally as William H. – was a corporate executive, chemical engineer, husband and great-grandfather. He died suddenly July 27 near Edmonton after years spent in long-term care.
He was 82.
A man who lived an immigrant’s dream, he cheated death more than once and liked to tell his three sons it was good to always feel “a little uncomfortable” in life to stay ahead of its unexpected twists.
He could not outrun one unforeseen turn, the failing health that slowly brought the last quarter of his life to a standstill, but he powered past other barriers through hard work, a keen mind and a notorious stubborn streak.
With no professional schooling, only his own smarts and the doors they could open, Van Moorsel rose to the top of North America’s chemical fertilizer industry. He began as an operator at a DuPont plant near Brockville, Ont., and ended his career as an executive with industry giant Agrium of Calgary.
Along the way, in the U.S. and Alberta, where he ran ammonia and nitrogen fertilizer plants, he also worked for Agway, CF Industries, Sherritt Gordon, Viridian Inc. and Sherritt International, for whom he went to Cuba to oversee the transition of a nickel mine from Soviet-era control to a joint venture with Castro.
Van Moorsel held an industrial patent, presented papers at gatherings of his profession and did consulting jobs in Europe and New Zealand – none of which looked to be in the cards for a high school kid fresh off an immigrant ship and unable to speak English, who wound up in rural Ontario in 1952.
Born in 1939 at the brink of the Second World War, Van Moorsel could not have come into the world at a worse time. He was a year old when the Nazis invaded his native Netherlands, brutalizing the tiny country with a five-year occupation that rewrote the life script of everyone in his family from Boekel, in North Brabant, and eventually prompted them to emigrate to Canada in search of better lives.
He marked his 13th birthday on the long train ride from Halifax to Ontario, two days after their Atlantic passage ended.
Their escape from economic ruin took them to a farm in the Ottawa Valley, near Morrisburg, Ont.
The youngest in a family of five, Van Moorsel and his brothers and sister could not have foreseen a future in dairy farming halfway around the world. But through hard work, the farm – still in a descendant’s hands – prospered and each successfully made their way in agriculture or business.
Van Moorsel and his brothers brought in money any way they could, including by working on the St. Lawrence Seaway that was being transformed from a river into a marine highway into the continent.
The youngest son broke one family mould early, the only sibling to take a Canadian-born bride. She was Eleanor Belanger. They met at a Sadie Hawkins dance, the kind where the girls ask the guys out. She was 14, he was 16. They married four years later, started a family and soon after moved to Allegany, N.Y., where their third son would be born.
Young, but poor, they were eager to get going in the world.
Van Moorsel, who never met a steering wheel he didn’t like, would go without a vehicle and pay to carpool, instead, to help save for his first home, a house he built himself in Prescott, Ont. If a lumber bill couldn’t immediately be paid, he’d work it off after hours at the yard.
Life for the young couple – he was still working on a Grade 13 diploma – was beautifully captured in an English composition Van Moorsel wrote in a correspondence course about a summer storm in 1965, eloquently describing its fallout on his two young kids, the family dog and his wife fretting about the laundry hanging outside.
“Clear and vivid,” the examiner wrote in red ink.
The language barrier – Van Moorsel always maintained the Latin he learned in Holland allowed him to conquer English without an accent – was the first to fall.
Farm life dealt Van Moorsel his first brush with death, when he was run over by a loaded hay wagon and left with a broken back and a hovering priest issuing last rites.
He also survived debilitating strokes in 2000, exactly 21 years before the day he died, that robbed him of what should have been wonderful retirement years. Dementia soon took what was left.
“He was my best friend,” said his widow, who stood by him for more than 60 years.
A news junkie, lifelong student of history and active trader in trivia, Van Moorsel was a voracious reader who for years made weekly trips to the library and kept up a regular habit of newspapers and magazines, rushing to get through them before his wife, impossibly neat and tidy, could consign them to the trash.
He could extemporize on any subject, often doing so at the dinner table, delighting his young sons with stories of what he’d read or experienced until his wife would implore, “Please, no more war stories.”
Ever practical, which served him well at work, Van Moorsel applied the same trait in everyday life. When he helped his youngest son, Guillaume, move to Philadelphia to take his first job – first driving solo from Edmonton to Halifax to get him – there was no parking in Philly for the big pickup he’d driven.
Instead, Van Moorsel tossed a few bucks to a street tough to look after the rig in a back alley and told him there’d be more if it was still there in the morning. It was, along with a waiting cup of hot coffee.
Not a classic family man, Van Moorsel deferred all things household to his wife, who managed the thankless work of the family’s moves across a continent as he focused on career. Seldom did he get into the day-to-day of raising children, but when he did it was bound to be eyebrow-raising:
– He had stern words for a prudish librarian who tried to stop one child from checking out a graphic adult novel. “He will read what he wants,” he said, telling her where she could put her bookmark.
– For another son, who enrolled in karate as a kid, he took one for the team – robing up with him in the classes, purportedly for his own fitness, and allowing men half his age to inflict punishment on him.
– When a small-town lawyer thumped down a big bill to get him out of a legal pickle, he instructed another son, in language too colourful to repeat, to jack up what he charged the man to cut his grass.
A born workaholic, a hallmark of his immigrant generation, Van Moorsel almost never took vacations that weren’t related to work. If he did, they were often family road trips with dramatic potholes.
Once, on a trip to Norfolk, Va., the family wound up where it had no business being, lost on the world’s largest naval base after dark in a fierce storm. No directions had been asked.
Another time, a cosmetic case carelessly left behind in the driveway in a hasty packing job summoned the vacation demons, their wrath not descending until the destination was reached one province away.
Demanding of employees, Van Moorsel was known to tell them to “get your priorities straight.” But he also had their backs when it counted most, support many expressed after his career-ending strokes.
He was just as tough on racial intolerance, calling out bigotry and sticking up for minorities, including in North Carolina where he unloaded on a realtor who refused to take a Black family’s offer on a home.
A social creature, Van Moorsel enjoyed hanging out with his grandchildren, had a soft spot for dogs and became a convert to golf, preferring a course near Edmonton that encircled a plains bison herd.
He drove himself hard, but was harder on vehicles, no matter if they were his own or company cars. A man who enjoyed a good bargain, he had a taste for jalopies and rarely babied a vehicle.
A notable exception was an early 1960s Rambler Classic he bought at an auction. Years later, he was horrified to discover that two of his sons, whom he often left in the car during quick stops at the plant that would turn into agonizing waits, had punched tiny pencil holes into the car’s linen ceiling.
Proud of his Dutch heritage, he was chagrined to learn that his command of the language was frozen in time, his vocabulary that of the 12-year-boy he’d left behind as he boarded the immigrant ship in 1952.
“You speak little-boy Dutch,” a relative told him on his last trip to Holland in the 1990s. “But it’s OK: We all speak English now.”
Cremation is scheduled, with some of Van Moorsel’s ashes to be scattered at the Ontario farm where his new life in North America began. A memorial gathering will be held at a future date.
WILLIAM H. VAN MOORSEL
– Born April 28, 1939; died July 27, 2021.
– Predeceased by parents Martin and Maria (nee Van Zutphen) and brothers Harry (Diny), Ted (Catherine) and Peter (Mary), of Morrisburg and Williamsburg, Ont., and by his eldest grandchild, Christopher, of Fort Saskatchewan, Alta.
– Survived by his widow, Eleanor, of Fort Saskatchewan; sons Gary (Helen Tomkiewych), of Boyle, Alta.; Greg, of London, Ont.; Guillaume (Angela), of Stamford, Ct.; sister, Nolda Byvelds, of Williamsburg, Ont.; 15 grandchildren and great-grandchildren in western Canada and the U.S. and many nieces and nephews.
– In lieu of flowers, donations to the auxiliary wing of the Lamont Health Care Centre are appreciated, at P.O. Box 479, 5216 53rd St., Lamont, Alta., T0B 2R0. Ph. (780) 895-2211.
Serenity Funeral Service, Fort Saskatchewan 780-998-1422