Goodbye, Bill


By Zuri Sabir

120511-bill-out-of-ithaca1Bill held some of his beliefs very deeply, and one of those was simply that people should mind their own business. And as a staunch individualist, Bill's definition of one's own business was fairly narrow. I am not as strong an individualist as Bill, however, believing, for example, that every person's well-being is to some extent the business of everyone else. It is in fact precisely because of this belief that I met Bill in the first place. So Bill, I'm sorry, but in the end I think it's appropriate that the community of your friends gather to honor you, and help each other grieve your passing. We love you, and mean no disrespect.

— Harold Mills

The goodness of a man may be glimpsed in the quality and, perhaps, quantity of those gathered to remember him in his hometown. The impressions they share reveal a man's impact on the hearts that surrounded him.

I stopped in my tracks when my mother told me that Bill Doggett passed away in his sleep from a heart attack. Bill was 58. A colleague of hers told her on Friday and it was now Saturday, a full week since I'd begun to search for his familiar face on my daily commute. "Oh, wow," escapes my lips, and our planned evening is given a different light. I have sad thoughts for myself — and for Ithaca, which will feel so different without his observant, sometimes terse, yet peaceful presence.

I'm grateful for this chance to express my gratitude for a man who cared enough to ask me in passing how I was on a daily basis — and to investigate the connections of Bill, who was an Ithacan.

In the sanctuary of the Unitarian Church, upwards of 40 people sit listening to each other's memories, each appreciating that together they conjure up a three-dimensional image of a man who was intensely private. Bill Doggett gave pieces of himself to those he chose to, often telling them not to share his private business with anyone.

One by one people speak: "I would see him in the spot on Aurora Street or on the steps of Dewitt Mall and I always felt comfortable going up to him and chit-chatting," says a woman wearing a pink turtleneck and a confident, thoughtful expression. "I think the most profound thing about Bill was his presence in the city. I would see him everywhere. He would stand easily on the corner and watch the life of Ithaca go by. I didn't know Bill's last name, and he didn't know mine. We were on a first-name basis. And with Bill you knew when the conversation was up." Everyone laughs in recognition. "He will be missed."

Next, Josh Dolan: "At the ABC Cafe, Bill used our bathroom and I was always annoyed that I had to clean his beard hairs out of the sink. Now it's one of the things I really miss. We don't have a framework for what he was in our Western culture, but... he's like a Bodhisattva." (A Bodhisattva is an enlightened being who, out of compassion, forgoes nirvana in order to teach others.)

They all say he was a good guy, profoundly intelligent with a photographic memory that could pull events up from years past with precision and relevance. Bill was a man of integrity who requested integrity from those around him, and reinforced his personal boundaries while fostering meaningful relationships with those who approached him with respect. Memories of Bill's aversion to receiving handouts are shared. The prickly conversations that such instances launched remind friends that Bill was not seeking material things, even when they seemed essential to his needs. According to Harold Mills, Bill skipped the "consumer class" many Americans have "taken" and was fiercely adamant about living on his own terms no matter how difficult. He wanted people to be nice to him and to be pleasant and kind.

He grew up between Syracuse and Ithaca, staying with his grandmother in Ithaca during the summers of his childhood. His best friend Mike, a blind man with a quick wit similar to Bill's, tells of times when Bill moved into action when others didn't. Being there to stand guard over a storefront (Sarah's — now closed) terrorized by repeat robberies, and escorting a blind man away from a hole in the ground. Bill loved music from the 1960s, having fond memories of listening to newly released Beatles songs with his little sister. Bill had a great interest in history and science and was particularly knowledgeable about the Civil War, astronomy and evolution. He was a sports fan.

Sabrina is one of the last of Bill's good friends to speak. "We had the honor of sharing our home with Bill often. He was really an inspiration. Sometimes he was in a hard space and he would share some of that. Then he would always say, 'But you know what? I'm still feeling blessed.' He could find that place where he could have joy. I will always carry with me the fact that he modeled that."

Bill is interred at the Calvary Cemetary. The funeral home has donated a headstone, but still needs donations for the engraving. To contribute, stop by E.C. Wagner Funeral Home at 421 N. Aurora Street, Ithaca, 607.272.3590.

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