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Goodbye, Dr. Bill [1/28/2009 12:57:00 AM]:
This one's not going to mean much to most of you, but I'm going to do it anyway, so bear with me.

Back when I was a college student -- which is a lot longer ago now than I wish it was, age-wise, and thankfully far off in terms of me being a sane, adult human being -- I was at Wiess College on the Rice campus. If you don't know what Rice's residential colleges are like, they're this bizarre (yet still entertaining) combination of dorm, frat/sorority house, military barracks (at least during O-Week), and neighborhood rec center, with a bunch of freaky traditions nobody but your college understands thrown on top. Most Rice folks I know are (or at least were) loyal to their college above anything else, particularly Rice itself. Obviously, I'm going to tell you Wiess is the best, but hey, I'll admit my bias.

Each college has a Master, a member of the faculty & his/her family who live in an adjacent house, and two (maybe more?) Resident Associates, who're also generally faculty and who live in a room at the college like one of the students. Like RAs everywhere, they're there to ride herd on the kids, help stop stupid shit from happening, and be a friend and mentor to the members of the college.

We had two RAs during my time at Wiess. One, Dr. Stan Dodds, was hands-down one of the most sarcastically funny human beings I've ever met. He was also a good friend when I needed one and a helpful ear, for which I'll be eternally indebted to him. Dr. Dodds, you're The Man, and I mean that.

The other RA was Dr. Bill Wilson. At the time I had no idea how long Dr. Bill had been RA at Wiess, but he was there the entire time I was (I've since learned he lived there from 1978 to 2006, when I retired, a whopping 28 years), and he seemed to have always been there, like he was part of the architecture of the place himself. The man was Wiess College, in a lot of ways. His home sprawled across four rooms, as I recall -- two joined suites -- all packed with piles and boxes and stacks of stuff, from the ancient, hand-silk-screened college T-shirts he always seemed to wear to his fascinating (to me, anyway) collection of glass insulators.

The biggest stacks of stuff, though, was the audio gear. Dr. Bill collected, messed with, and lovingly used all kinds of audio equipment, both as part of the PA the college used for bands & such and for recording bands and musicians he liked. The first sound board I ever got my hands on was his, part of the setup he used for Wiess's annual JamFest "battle of the bands"-type thing (I've heard it's since expanded to be a university-wide thing); I did my best to not fuck things up with it when he had to go do something else for a few minutes. Dr. Bill was the go-to guy for all things audio, whether that meant ska bands setting up in the Wiess Quad or mic'ing the musicians for performances of Hello Hamlet (for which he also ran the lights and pretty much anything else that used electricity). He owned the two single biggest PA speakers I've ever seen, which mostly got used for blasting "Ride of the Valkyries" on Beer-Bike morning to get lazy-ass people out of bed.

Of course, it being college, I was also in a band. We played covers at first -- "Celebrated Summer," "Beat on the Brat," "Turning Japanese," "American Jesus," a brilliant song by Magnapop I'm blanking on -- practicing in the basement of the college on partly-broken equipment (Henry, if you're reading this, I kept the beer can "cymbal" on the broken pool cue literally 'til about 3 years ago), but eventually moved on to our own songs. We started out aping The Clash and Social Distortion but soon shifted into a half-assed, heavily Jawbreaker-inspired emo thing before we really knew what emo was. We played embarrassing cover sets to friends and fellow Wiessmen, primarily for laughs.

Dr. Bill, for reasons I can't entirely fathom, took it a lot more seriously. I may be fogging it up in my addled memory, but I'm fairly sure he offered, out of the blue, to record some of our songs once we'd started to hone 'em down a bit. We were nervous as hell at first, but hey, it was Dr. Bill, so why not? I remember trying to set our amps on as low a volume as we could muster and still sound loud, mostly so we didn't piss off the poor Wiessfolk living below Dr. Bill's rooms.

We played our parts over and over, sweating our asses off -- we had to kill the wall A/C unit so there wouldn't be a hum on the recording -- trying to not screw 'em up for what seemed like the five-millionth time. And through it all, the guy was patient as a saint, totally carefree and supportive, like there weren't a million other things for him to be doing. He shook his head and chuckled when I tried to sing my parts, telling me I had the worst sibilance he'd ever heard, then set up these complicated baffles to keep it sounding sane.

In the end, we were pretty bad. We got better over the next few years, post-college, but in spite of all our best efforts, I still cringe when I think about what we (okay, let's be honest: mostly I) sounded like. But fuck...we'd recorded our very own songs, songs we'd written and dreamed about. It was something else, to be able to hold that in our hands.

After graduation, people drifted off, as they tend to. While still a bachelor, I'd go back to Dr. Bill's during the summers, when he'd open his rooms up to undergrads and alums one afternoon/evening each week, just to say "hi" and hang out. Once I met Kim, Dr. Bill came to visit us in the old house on Willard, then came to the wedding. Sadly, I lost touch with him after that, only occasionally talking via email 'til his retirement. Weirdly, the music thing that started for me back then continued -- the band soldiered on for several more years before imploding, and this Website/ezine/blog thing morphed out of that. In a roundabout way, Bill's support back when none of us had any idea what we were doing is what's taken me here.

After leaving Rice, Dr. Bill moved on back to Vermont, and I didn't hear anything about him for a few years, 'til I got the news that he'd passed away, dying of cancer at just 65, a week ago today. Hearing the news -- by accident, really, from a college friend I hadn't heard from in years -- made me feel like my stomach had been dropped off the top floor of a skyscraper. Fuck. No more happy, manic, college-kid-who-never-grew-up grin, no more marathon late-night sessions spent silkscreening shirts, no more knob-twiddling, no more set-building for Tabletop, no more lazy afternoons hanging out and shooting the shit, none of it. He's just gone.

Dr. Bill, I'm proud to have known you. You were a good friend and a great teacher, and I owe a debt to you that's bigger than you ever could've realized.



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