Off the page and into the world

Bill and Margo McPhail shared a childhood love of reading, which led them to share a lifetime of adventures. Now they are making sure others can pursue their own journeys

Niall McKenna - 29 April 2019

After years of adventure, Margo and Bill McPhail moved to Camrose, Alta., near the U of A's Augustana Campus.

It's Bill who has the wanderlust. Margo swears it. Take the time he quit his teaching job near Edmonton, sold everything and moved the family to a farm east of Stettler, Alta. A decade later, the kids off on their own, Bill McPhail, '90 BEd, uprooted the pair again and moved them to Nanaimo, B.C. "I want to go see what the island is like," he'd told his wife.

At least, that's how Margo McPhail recalls it.

"I think about how darn lucky I am to be able to be at that library and to now be able to support these students. It's a privilege."
Bill McPhail, '90 BEd

"Itchy feet, that's Bill," she laughs. But it's clear she looks back at those years with fondness. As Bill helps himself to another triple-chocolate cookie at their dining room table, he offers dryly, "Would have been much wiser, financially, if I had stayed teaching." Margo responds quickly: "Pfft …. No. All the things we would have missed!"

Thirty years of marriage. Thirty years of adventures. And an unwavering commitment to support each other's passion for curiosity and learning, no matter where it took them. Today, settled in what they hope to be their forever home in Camrose, Alta., their grandkids nearby, Bill and Margo have decided to help more young people feel that same spark of curiosity.

The pair have lived by the principle that you can learn to do just about anything. For both, the genesis of this philosophy came from the same place - the library.

It's where Bill sat for hours as a child, losing himself in tales of airplanes. It's where shy, young Margo eagerly awaited each instalment of the Black Stallion book series, dreaming of a life filled with farm animals and serenity. Courage taught them to lift those dreams off the page. After high school, Bill went to school to learn how to fix and fly airplanes. Margo went to college to learn animal care, making lifelong friends and discovering she had plenty to offer the world.

"Their narrative is so common in rural Alberta," says Dale Askey.

"Libraries are a portal to perspectives and opportunities bigger than what small towns can support on their own."

Dale is the University of Alberta's chief librarian and is talking about the gift Bill and Margo have made in their wills to the library at Augustana Campus. In the smartphone era, libraries continue to evolve to serve the changing needs of students, he says.

Bill and Margo's gift will help Augustana as it continues to buy tools that bring learning alive - not just the latest books and journals but spaces for co-working, technology to create amazing presentations, standing and treadmill desks to combat sedentariness, and writing coaches. The library even offers cross-country skis for when wanderlust strikes.

"This gift means we can bring in materials that cut through our noisy, digital culture and lead students to the joy of discovery," Dale says.

"I can't say enough how wonderful this gift is. It's incredible when people come forward to say libraries are important and worth supporting."

Bill and Margo definitely believe they are - and they've shown it through this gift and in how they've lived their lives. Margo now works at the Camrose Public Library, where she recently had staff trained on how to administer naloxone in case of drug overdoses. Bill spends hours at the Augustana library with a stack of books, a comfy chair and a cup of tea.

"I think about how darn lucky I am to be able to be at that library and to now be able to support these students," Bill says. "It's a privilege."

It was back at their dining room table - the same one where today they eat cookies and reminisce - that Bill told Margo where he wanted their final gift to go. Once again, Margo was on board with one of Bill's out-of-the-blue suggestions. After 30 years supporting each other's curiosity, she thought, how incredible to be able to do that for others.

After all, it has worked out well for them.