The Ballad of Frank McPhail

I don’t believe I had any sense of what it was to be a “man’s man” until Frank McPhail came into our lives. A status not erroneously earned through athletic prowess, bombast or the ability to survive two weeks in the bush with just a can of beans and a bowie-knife. Rather, Frank quietly impressed with an unwavering dedication to those most ancient of qualities – ethics, humility, and an unparalleled mastery of carpentry.

It is almost 13 years ago that Frank was recommended to us by the venerable Leonard Lee, to whom I sought advice on who might assist us with the intimidating task of renovating our new permanent headquarters at 88 Mill Street. Mr. Lee told us Frank was our man, but he cautioned us with one piece of advice.

“Frank is a perfectionist”, he confided. “When he makes a suggestion, you need to understand that it’s not really a suggestion”.

Leonard Lee

A few days later, Frank McPhail quietly and suddenly appeared in our then-rented store at the bottom of Mill Street to introduce himself, and thus began a voyage of enlightenment that quite literally molded the future of our business as we began to lay down permanent roots in Almonte.

Frank was indeed a perfectionist, and his skills – and the speed at which he exercised them – were often breath-taking to witness. With his remarkable heritage knowledge and vision, he single-handedly demolished and then rebuilt the entire ground floor of what is now our Alliance Coin & Banknote Building. The Heritage award we would later receive from the Municipality is but one of many testaments throughout our community to his enduring legacy.

For the next decade, Frank was always there when we needed him, as we naive new building owners faced one unexpected challenge after another – a tenant’s window-frame blowing in during a winter storm, or a hidden pipe suddenly letting loose with a cascade of water down one of our walls. Frank always found the solution, even if this meant bringing in the other trades who similarly held him in the highest regard, and in typical McPhail fashion – his work was impeccably tidy, never leaving a trace that he had actually been there. He expected no less from these other trades, when called upon, and was not tolerant of inferior work.

In fact, Frank’s diverse skills in carpentry and restoration were so deep, that it became a fun challenge over the years to come up with projects that he hadn’t actually done before – and Frank enjoyed those challenges, as it involved applying his talents in a new way. When first taking possession of our century-old building, I was able to identify that a walk-in “bunker” of a closet at the back of my office was actually a 19th-century vault. Thus, we mail-ordered a quarter-ton vault door and frame up from California, and Frank rebuilt the entrance to accommodate this updated hardware, bringing a functional vault back into service.

Frank McPhail (left) and Sean Isaacs.

I’m not sure Frank even came to know this, however he was also credited in a short film that premiered at the Kingston Canadian Film Festival. My son Fenton produced the film five years ago, and we turned to Frank to construct a full, free-standing 40 square-foot bathroom inside the abandoned army barracks in Carleton Place for a pivotal scene. He built an outstanding set for us with added detailing we hadn’t thought of, and once again in Frank’s impeccable fashion, once we gave the word that we were finished our shooting, the entire set was gone the next morning – vanished, without the slightest sign that a room had actually stood there.

Frank was a fairly private man in terms of his personal life, although from the few discussions we did have over the years on his background, it became clear that thinking of his contributions in terms of only “the Valley” would have been mistaken. From his time building homes in Japan, to the extensive months-long private villa renovations he was tapped to conduct in Barbados or the Bahamas, Frank’s quality of work was both known and called-up well beyond his borders.

Fighting through and recovering from his first bout with cancer a couple years ago, Frank told us of devoting some time to his “bucket list”, heading down for a contemplative visit to California’s Mojave Desert, and later to the sun and sand of Cuba last year. For a man whose skills were constantly in demand, it was good to learn he found some time for himself on these journeys.

When we learned his cancer had returned with a vengeance late this summer, it was difficult news to digest. Now, with his loss, the void he leaves behind seems immeasurable.

In closing, I have titled this personal eulogy as a “Ballad”, in that I believe the circumstances fully satisfy the criteria.

For here we say farewell to a person of character, high ethics and incomparable talent, taken too young by tragedy, and whose legend will prevail in terms of the legacy of his work left behind for many of us to enjoy and appreciate.

Farewell, Frank, and God-speed – your work boots will be very difficult indeed to fill.

Sean Isaacs

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