A very popular series of articles in the Reader’s Digest was entitled “The Most Unforgettable Character I Ever Met”.
It focused on men and women who had captured the attention and enriched the lives of the contributing authors.
My own short list of unforgettable characters would include Bill Watson – a man whom I met only rarely but whose memory I cherish.
William Francis Watson (Bill or Geordie to his friends), the youngest of the six children of John Watson and Elizabeth Mary Frances Gillies, was born on April 3, 1897, and was baptised in St Stephen’s Cathedral before the month was out.
Scottish-born John Watson, a devout Catholic, was respected in his various roles as a contractor, bridge-builder, shipwright, hotelier and politician (MLA 1888-96).
His death in 1910, followed by that of his wife two years later, left Bill orphaned at the age of 15.
Like his older brothers, Charles and George, Bill enrolled (in 1913) as a border at St Joseph’s Nudgee College, conducted by the Christian Brothers.
Awarded a scholarship to the University of Queensland on the successful completion of his secondary schooling in 1915, he entered the Faculty of Engineering and became a foundation member of St Leo’s Residential College for Men.
He was a convivial member of the college community to which he contributed as a pianist in its social get-togethers and as the organist in its liturgical celebrations.
He transferred to the University of Sydney where he graduated with the degree of Bachelor of Engineering (Civil) before pursuing higher studies overseas.
On his return to Australia, Bill Watson worked as an engineer with the Brisbane City Council for about 20 years until, retiring early from his profession, he devoted himself full-time to the ministry of the St Vincent de Paul Society and other Catholic activities (Aquinas Library, Campion Society, et cetera).
I first met Bill in 1946 when, as a Grade Six pupil at St James School, Fortitude Valley, our class was marched down to St Stephen’s Cathedral to receive the sacrament of Confirmation at the hands of the Archbishop James Duhig. Mr Watson acted as sponsor for all of us.
In later years I often saw him at the cathedral.
Wearing a shabby grey dustcoat, he attended all the Masses there every Sunday, organising the collections and manning the stall, which sold The Catholic Leader and various articles of piety.
Bill was, as Archbishop Francis Rush observed, as familiar to visitors to the cathedral as the stained glass in the sanctuary.
He lived an austere life of freely chosen simplicity; and, if he had few possessions, it was because he devoted his time and worldly goods to assisting, with unconditional positive regard, victims of alcoholism, homeless people and the inner-city poor.
Age and infirmity caught up with Bill; and, afflicted with mental impairment, he died at Canossa Hospital, Oxley, on December 21, 1979, aged 82.
The sisters who cared for him attest to his life of constant prayer.
Whenever he was awakened he would ask them, “What can I do for you?”
Bill’s Requiem Mass was concelebrated in the cathedral by Archbishop Rush, Bishop John Gerry (auxiliary), Fr Frank Moynihan (administrator) and several other priests.
In his homily the archbishop observed: “Seeing this gentle, self-effacing, warm-hearted man, shuffling around St Stephen’s, very few could have imagined that they were in the company of a human being of heroic proportions … I do not know what experience it was in his life that turned Bill Watson into a man utterly detached from money and comfort, oblivious of how he looked or what others might think of him, and completely good …”
There was no burial after the Mass because “the man in the grey dustcoat” had already determined what his last gift would be.
He bequeathed his body to the University of Queensland for scientific purposes.
An acquaintance summed him up in these words; “He was Christ in our midst”. His witness to the Christian life touched many people, including an impressionable young boy from “Jimmies”.
Br Brian Grenier is a Christian Brother in Brisbane.