Bill Coulthard’s life history is inexorably linked to that of Tillsonburg’s, a small community which successfully took on both the nation and the world midway through the past century, putting the town on Canada’s basketball map forever.
Enabled by the driving passion of visionary entrepreneur Gerry Livingston, Coulthard was a crucial early building block and consistent keystone in the transformation of a small town basketball team into a national champion which represented its nation at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland.
“It’s kind of like the Hoosiers north thing,” said Bill’s son David. “They weren’t high school kids, but it had that same feel to it.”
The Tillsonburg Livvies legacy was a living one, a source of both pride and inspiration for the community, whose high school basketball teams followed in the sneaker-prints of their legendary role models, making their mark at the local, regional and provincial levels for decades.
Like many of those who would follow, Coulthard’s story is one of athletic ability nourished and developed within a framework of committed coaches, beginning with a remarkable individual at his first elementary school in Windsor.
Bill led off his acceptance speech for the Windsor/Essex Sports Hall of Fame by crediteding a supportive teacher for kickstarting his athletic career. The teacher in question would arrive at school at 6 a.m. in good weather, opening up its facilities to interested students. Many days, Bill would have three hours of basketball under his belt by class time.
“Five days a week, the balls were on the playground,” said Bill’s son Chris. “That’s where he learned to play.”
Bill went on to a notable high school career in Windsor, moving to post-secondary basketball and capturing Eastern Canadian titles in 1946 and 1947 with Assumption College as well as playing a couple of seasons across the border for room and board while at school in Michigan.
Chris recalls a quiet, unauthorized search for a ‘goodies’ quarter as a child, when he came across a small, golden basketball in one of his father’s drawers, bearing the inscription, All Michigan State, “1943, I’m pretty sure it was.”
His father would later confirm that he had earned that honour as a ‘shooting guard’ in a survey conducted by The Detroit Free Press. The position was legitimate, said his son, “because he was a shooter, he was a legit shooter.”
Bill wasn’t forthcoming about his own abilities.
“First and foremost, I think he was humble,” said Chris.
Ultimately, his kids would find out how good he really was from others.
“Not necessarily through him,” said David. “He was a pretty decent shot, I think that’s what came out through the years, he could shoot a basketball.”
Bill used the traditional ‘baby’ (underhanded) free throw shot of the time, and was deadly accurate.
“They said he hardly missed a shot,” said Chris.
But in a basketball era where halfcourt offence was still based on a two-handed set shot, Bill taught himself a one-handed approach, including what today might be called a one-step ‘runner.’
“He got deadly,” said Chris, recalling a story about one coach challenging Bill on the, for the times, unorthodox approach. The coach queried his stats man how many one-handed shots Bill had taken, and then made? Upon dual responses of ‘eight,’ he paused before turning back to Coulthard.
“He says ‘well,’” recalled Chris, “’keep shooting.’”
Although not documented officially, David believes his father was also an innovator for Ontario in terms of what today would be termed a jumpshot, versus the two-handed set delivery. One coach had a one-hour one-on-one session in the gym, before conceding Bill to could in fact be effective.
“I guess he was the only guy on the team who was allowed to do it.”
Bill met his wife June at a church dance (she informed her mother he would be the man she would marry after that first encounter) while serving in the armed forces in her native Toronto. Bill had just inserted the key into the door lock of their Windsor apartment upon returning from their honeymoon on a Saturday in 1947, when the phone began to ring. Hurrying inside, he picked up the receiver.
“Hello,” said a voice on the other end. “My name is Gerry Livingston.”
The visionary owner of Livingston Wood Products inquired if he was indeed Bill Coulthard, and would he be interested in a job in Tillsonburg combined with a role as basketball player/coach?
Despite having no precise idea where Tillsonburg was, it sounded like the kind of community June would like, and Bill found the back end of the job offer, allowing him to extend his basketball career, particularly attractive.
“That was the lure, it wasn’t just the job,” said Chris.
Livingston informed him he would expect him in his office at 9 a.m. that Monday for an interview.
“And he was, he was,” said Chris. “That’s the way it was.”
That phone call led to a 33-year career as a financial and HR officer and family home to five children, accomplished athletes in their own right.
“They loved it in Tillsonburg,” said David, CIS Mike Moser Award Winner for the outstanding male basketball player of the year in 1978/79 and 1980/81 at York University. “They didn’t want to leave.”
“He loved it here, loved it,” agreed Chris.
But Bill’s arrival led to far more than that. The Tillsonburg Livvies had begun as local resident Bill Bennett requested funding for uniforms for a regional Intermediate C team that ultimately piqued the driven and competitive factory owner’s athletic interest. The way Chris tells the story, Gerry took his dad Bill to Canadian Senior A men’s championships in 1948 or 1949, and as they sat at centre court, informed Bill they would be there prior to the next (1952) Olympics.
“You could make a movie about that guy (Livingston),” said Chris, noting his father was initially taken aback, realizing where the team was, and how far it would have to go to realize Gerry’s dream.
“Then again, he didn’t understand Gerry Livingston and how serious he was at building this team – it all happened.”
Bill had nothing but good things to say about Livingston, both as an employer, entrepreneur, organizer and manager, added David.
“Gerry Livingston was a dreamer. It takes that to get you to these places.”
Bill Coulthard was arguably a keystone to the plan, a crucial early building block and template for a team-building program sourcing additional national-level talent from the Windsor/Essex area, including Harry Wade, Red Curren, Bobby Simpson and Woody Campbell.
“He knew how to ‘butter the bread’ and get guys to play for him,” said Chris Coulthard. “’Here’s a job.’”
Bill remained a significant contributor throughout the process as the Tillsonburg Livvies advanced up the ranks, vying for and ultimately capturing the 1952 Canadian senior championship. The final string of David versus Goliath victories was by one point over Winnipeg inside Tillsonburg’s Memorial Arena. Fans literally hung from the rafters in a facility an estimated 1,500 persons over capacity, playing on a floor custom-constructed at Livingston Wood Products.
The Livvies formed the basis of Canada’s 1952 Olympic team to Helsinki, Finland, where Bill would finish the tournament as his team’s second-leading scorer, despite battling a badly sprained ankle. Canada won its first three games before being eliminated on a two-point defeat by Brazil (via a buzzer-beating Hail Mary that banked home from half) and a one-point loss to Argentina. Coulthard had 25 points in the latter game, his final a foul shot after being tackled on a late breakaway, following a steal. The rules of the time awarded just a single free throw, and despite the fact he made it, it left Canada one point short.
“They were a couple of points away from the medal round,” said Chris.
Bill’s Canadian championship and Olympic experience were the highlights of his career, “No question about it,” said David, recalling his father said it was one of those things that ‘never goes away.
“It was one of those accomplishments that was large enough to stay with you.”
Friday night, that accomplishment and Bill Coulthard’s contribution to it, were officially, some would say finally, recognized in front of a full house at the Air Canada Centre. The posthumous honour was shared by his children and grandchildren along with members of his adopted community, the latter’s presence particularly appreciated.
“It was incredible,” said David Coulthard. “It was such a great tribute that so many people would do that in his honour.”
“It was lovely,” concluded Bill’s daughter Carol Dodsley. “I’m just over the moon that TIllsonburg still supports the Livvies, so to speak.”