Matheson, Bill

William Richard Matheson was born on April 26, 1926, in Lethbridge, Alta., and died there on Sept. 19, 2006, after a lengthy struggle with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. He was 80.

Declared the world’s best weatherman, he once quit a New York TV station rather than surrender his Canadian citizenship. He returned home to become hugely popular among Edmonton viewers

RON CSILLAG

Special to The Globe and Mail; with files from Canadian Press

TORONTO — There was the dreaded “Siberian High,” the “Mother Low,” the “Arctic Vortex” and the “Idaho High.” For Bill Matheson, these were more than just meteorological phenomena; they were signature catchphrases, usually delivered with sound effects and old-time showmanship.

Television viewers in Edmonton loved these and other Mathesonisms, and if blogs and dozens of on-line condolences are any gauge, they loved Mr. Matheson — enough so that people hugged him on the street. A radio personality and television weatherman in the city for 23 years, he brightened the darkest of forecasts with sunny language and blustery style.

Despite his antics, or maybe because of them, Mr. Matheson was honoured in 1995 as the world’s best weather presenter at the International Weather Forecasters’ Festival in Paris.

He was a fixture at Global Edmonton from 1976 until illness forced him to retire in 1999. He was so beloved that the station retired his weather map when he left and presented him with an engraved silver pointer.

“He was a monster in the TV market,” Tim Spelliscy, the station’s general manager, told the Edmonton Journal. “Viewers were just passionate about Bill.”

Gregarious and outlandish, the one-time actor “was exactly in person what he was on the air,” Mr. Spelliscy said. “Fun and friendly and energetic and entertaining. When he came in to work it would change the whole mood of the newsroom.”

The eldest of five children whose mother died when he was 10, Mr. Matheson held a series of jobs that could have been culled from the vaults of Hollywood: shoeshine boy, shepherd, elephant watering boy at the circus, mail carrier, bartender, threshing crewman, cattle brander and harvester of sugar beets.

During the Second World War, he served in the First Canadian Parachute Battalion for two years. Returning home, he graduated from the University of Alberta and headed north to work for the Department of Transport’s meteorological branch for six years. He worked in remote outposts such as Fort Smith and Fort Simpson, sending up weather balloons and reading instruments.

While working in Suffield, near Medicine Hat, a friend told him about a new radio station in Lethbridge. Terrified at the prospect of becoming a lifelong civil servant, he took a job as a news writer and announcer at CJOC in 1954. Two years later, he replaced the local weather announcer at CJLH-TV (later Global Lethbridge), even though he himself didn’t own a television set. He kept the radio job.

A natural actor — some might say a ham — he appeared in more than 50 plays with the Lethbridge Playgoers and the Lethbridge Musical Theatre. He even wrote a play, aptly titled Chinook, about a lonely professor who is visited by a beautiful goddess representing the warm, dry winds. He cast himself in the lead and it won an Alberta theatre award. He also later penned an unpublished novel, Down North, about a northern government outpost.

He apparently didn’t mind being a rarity in Alberta. In 1968, he ran as a Liberal candidate in provincial elections. His daughter, Tricia, called it a “quixotic” attempt to spread liberal values in a conservative land. “But he didn’t mind. He liked the back and forth.”

Around 1974, the Lethbridge TV station thought its format was getting stale so it brought in an American consultant who was so impressed by Mr. Matheson that he offered him a job at an ABC-TV affiliate, either in California or New York. Mr. Matheson chose the latter, mainly for its cultural abundance.

“He loved New York,” recalled his second wife, Carmel Kole. “He absolutely loved it, because of the theatre, the museums, the art.” Besides, he was reaching an audience roughly equal to the population of Canada. For all that, it didn’t last. Mr. Matheson faced enormous pressure from unions to take out U.S. citizenship. “He was very staunchly Canadian,” said Ms. Kole. “He wouldn’t do it.”

Broadcast offers from Edmonton lured Mr. Matheson and his family back to Canada in 1976. His childhood friend from Lethbridge, John Paterson, recalled how Mr. Matheson soon made his larger-than-life persona felt in the city. “He was a friend to everybody. In this part of world, there was no one who did more speaking and work for charities.”

In addition to the TV job, he hosted The Bill and Bill Show on CJCA radio with Bill Jackson from 1976 until 1993. The noon-hour phone-in program was a hodgepodge of politics, big-band jazz and Spike Jones tracks (Mr. Matheson’s daily introduction heralded a show “for the education, elucidation, emancipation, enlightenment and mental emolument of the hoi-polloi.”)

“I never knew what was going to happen on that show,” recalled Gord Whitehead, a broadcaster who had the tough task of following the twin Bills. “There was never any preparation as far as I knew. There was no logical reason that the show worked . . . He was pure personality.”

When the new sports/talk station CHED came along, it wooed Mr. Matheson for a solo act from 1993 until 1997, where he displayed his trademark zaniness. Example: “Does an airplane in the air weigh more or less if it’s filled with chickens that are flying around in the airplane . . .?”

But it was in front of his weather map that he shone. His love of Shakespeare, poetry and language soon made its way into both his forecasts and Canadian broadcast lore. Bouts of particularly cold weather were presaged by the appearance of “that most dreaded of all meteorological phenomena, the Siberian High” (followed by an ominous “da-da-daaaa” or the more sinister “muah-ha-hah!”)

Storm clouds on the horizon were described as “darkling shadows.” When the weather was good, he’d quote 17th-century poet Robert Herrick, advising viewers to “gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”

He mentioned the weather in Baker Lake, Nunavut, (population 1,500) almost every night. In 1995, he explained it to the Journal: The Arctic hamlet was “the epitome of all things Canadians hate about winter. The wind is blowing all the time. You’re on the tundra. For half the year it’s dark. And it’s always the coldest place on the weather map.”

Baker Lake’s chamber of commerce didn’t mind. It once flew him in to celebrate Bill Matheson Day.

“Good evening and welcome to the weather map,” he would begin his segment. Like a mad professor, he jabbed his “weather stick” at old-fashioned maps and scrawled furiously all over them with black felt pens, long after electronic graphics had come into use. “He wasn’t low-tech, he was no-tech,” Mr. Spelliscy said. And every night, he closed his segment by bouncing the bottom of his pointer on the floor and triumphantly catching it mid-air.

Meanwhile, he kept trying to retire from radio — first in 1991, when he turned 65, and then the next year, and the year after. Listeners made such a fuss that he kept coming back. His retirement parties became something of a joke.

Claire Martin, now a weather forecaster on The National, the CBC’s nightly news broadcast, credits Mr. Matheson for coaxing her to TV from her behind-the-scenes job at Environment Canada. At Global, he brought Ms. Martin candy every day. “Sometimes, the candy had been in his pocket a couple of months; sometimes it was fresh. It was hilarious.”

Working with Mr. Matheson was like “working with your grandfather,” said Ms. Martin — to the point where she’d smooth his famously unruly cowlick for him before the cameras rolled.

His wife said that by 1999, Mr. Matheson knew his memory was slipping. “[Global] wanted him to stay, but Bill could not handle it any more. He knew he had to leave. He was really struggling,” she said. And when he finally retired that year, he quipped: “I’m ready to enjoy the Idaho Highs of life.”

William Richard Matheson was born on April 26, 1926, in Lethbridge, Alta., and died there on Sept. 19, 2006, after a lengthy struggle with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. He was 80. He is survived by his wife, Carmel, and by two children, three stepchildren, four grandchildren and six step-grandchildren.

Globe and Mail

filed 2006

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