Today I am reminded of that famous soliloquy from Carousel called “My Boy Bill”: a proud father going on about his son.
I got a call this morning from my nieces Kelly and Suzie. Their father (and my brother) Bill died this morning. I am very saddened by this news and I don’t know how best to express my feelings other than to write my memories of my brother Bill. He is the first of the Self-siblings to die. It affects me greatly--as I am sure it does Barb and Joe. He was 78.
This memoir is strictly my feelings and experiences and I hope my facts are accurate. His life was so much more than I saw from afar.
For many reasons our family was spread out all over the country. The loss of our parents left a focal point missing and we rarely spent time together--although we did maintain connection by phone, and email in recent years. A year ago last summer Bill orchestrated the only Self-family reunion ever--which we held in our old hometown, Oil City, PA. He played the role of patriarch and relished the idea of bringing everybody together. It was a wonderful event with many new cousins establishing a bond that will go on. It was at the time (and I sense this especially now) Bill’s deep feeling for our remote family. I think it gave him a lot of fulfillment because, for once, he had brought us all together—what all good father figures do. I am glad for him to have had that experience and in some way it was a crowning achievement in his life. Dozens of Self’s had a bonding experience.
Bill and I (and all of the four Self children) have led separate and interesting lives. I am proud of the fact that all of us are successful people and have had good productive lives. That in itself is a wonder. Most families with four children have at least one loser or black sheep. Considering the chaos of the early loss of our parents, it is amazing that we have done so well—no one is stupid or messed up. I don’t remember my parents very well but believe they must have been good balanced people because their kids all turned out well.
Bill and Barbara, my older sister, were almost a different generation than my younger brother Joe and I—10 and 12 years older than me respectively. Joe and I looked at them as surrogate parents—as they were. There were two defining moments of my childhood that affected everything. In 1949, at my age 6, our mother Helen had a cerebral hemorrhage that kept her in a wheel chair for the rest of her life. Her mind was never the same and she was more like another kid in the family— pleasant but not motherly. Ten years later our father Pete died when I was 15. These events colored the lives and relationships we siblings have had with each other ever since.
My early memories of Bill are very vague—I was a little boy. I remember him as a rather quiet and unassuming guy. One of my first memories was when he was about a senior in high school and, since mother was unable, he would sometimes get dinner for Joe and me. He loved to play tricks and one time made up pudding with purple dye—it tasted good but looked sickening. He later became a good cook! Bill had some cool cars as a young guy including a black 1938 Ford Convertible Coupe with a rumble seat and a 1950 Hudson that looked like a Chris Craft racing boat. The Ford, restored today, would be worth big money. Bill graduated Franklin High School in 1951 and went into the Navy soon after. Having a big brother in the navy was really neat. He went all around the world on ships and told us about that life when on leave. His last ship was the U.S.S. Forrestal, the first of the super aircraft carriers. It was state of the art and the largest ship ever built. The only extended vacation that I remember our family ever having was a driving trip down to see Bill in Norfolk, VA. We stayed in motels and got to actually go on that ship and see Bill— a very good memory.
Bill came home from the Navy and very soon met and married Helen Moore, a local girl from a strong Irish family. He became a Catholic for her and very soon had the first of five kids. I was an uncle at eight to Barbara’s daughter Norma and soon after to Bill’s Julie. Bill and Helen moved to Cleveland where Bill enrolled in a unique cooperative engineering program at Cleveland State where he would go to school six months and work at a company for six months. It took a long time but it was the only way he could afford college. He was the first Self to go to college. He was determined and eventually got an electrical engineering degree and spent his career in that complex field. I do remember Bill had a talent in “making” and fixing things in wood shop and around the house—skills that many engineers possess.
In March 1959 our father died. Bill and Barbara (trying to start their own families) had assumed the care of our mother and Joe and I. The strain this had on them for several years was really tough. Barb took mother and Bill planned to take Joe and I. In the summer of 1959 I was to move to Euclid, Ohio and live with Bill and Helen.
I moved over there but had a difficult time with Helen. To me she was too young to be a surrogate mother and I was a bratty teen. We clashed and I begged to return to Oil City, live with my maternal grandparents and finish high school where I had begun (finally) to do well in school—especially in music. Bill reluctantly agreed to this. Joe remained with them and did well. I’m sure it was a frustrating matter for Bill but my going back to Oil City was the beginning of my real independence and adulthood. Later that fall Bill had taken over our father’s 1953 Chevy and gave me his 1951 Plymouth. I was only 16 and could not afford to keep it up. That winter I remember driving it to Cleveland to give back it to him. A friend drove my grandfather’s 1949 Ford to bring me back home. It was a miserable snowy day and we pulled off to pee. We slid on the ice sides wiped each other and damaged both cars. It was embarrassing to return Bill’s car with a damaged side. I wore that guilt for a long time—Bill never brought it up again.
Over the years my mother was shuttled between Barbara and Bill’s homes. It must have taken a big toll on their young families. My life steam-rolled through college, The US Army Band, teaching at the University of Tennessee and finally to a long career as a movie musician in Hollywood. While in Tennessee I remember Bill saying to me it was my turn to care for mother who, at the time, was living with a private family in Oil City. So I took over her expenses and, soon after moving to California, I was able to find a nice assisted living home near me where she was comfortable and had good care for the last 5 years of her life.
During all of these years Bill had a successful career as an electrical engineer in Oil City, Pittsburgh and later in Bristol, VA, where he bought a big beautiful home. He was a specialist in designing coal mining machines and developed many patents for his employers—which made them rich but not him. I remember him telling me about travelling around the world (including China) to work on these machines— often in horrendous coal mines.
In his late 40’s Bill suffered a heart attack that compromised the rest of his life. A few years later during a severe recession, his company, Ingersoll Rand, let him go. I believe it was a tough blow on him. To a man in his mid 50s with a heart condition, losing your career is hard—tough to move and to start over. He and another laid off engineer, Bill McCracken, started their own two-man firm in Bristol and did contracting work. He remained at that business for the rest of his life. I once saw some of the complex schematic drawings of his machines that he designed for clients—often the US military. He was very talented.
All of these years Bill and Helen raised five wonderful children. His great roles in life were that of husband, father and grandfather. I never had children and my divorces sure kept me from any role as ideal husband so I always admired Bill for that rock-solid family thing. While I only occasionally saw Bill during these years and don’t know much about his home life, I was somewhat aware of the challenges he had with his wife. For many years Helen had serious health conditions that must have made life so difficult for him. She suffered a long decline where Bill patiently cared for her until her death a few years ago. It reminded me of the care my father give my mother. He also invited his daughter Kelly and her two boys to live with them. Bill raised them as a surrogate father—they called him Papa.
My younger brother Joe lived with Bill in his high school years and remained close to him—part big brother/part father figure. They are both sports fans and enjoyed going to the Browns/Steelers football games together.In later years Bill and I became closer and stayed better in touch. I visited him several times in Bristol—a couple of times flying there in my plane and taking him and the kids flying. He was very proud of my success as a musician. After his wife died he planned a long cross- country drive to see each of his siblings and some of the sights like the Grand Canyon. He brought along his 12 year old grandson Ryan—who I am sure will treasure that his whole life. He visited Joe in Toledo, Barbara in Wyoming and Jamie and me in Los Angeles. We had a wonderful visit but I remember how frail he was.
His heart condition took a great toll on his energy. I was worried for him. But he went home and continued working and kept positive. I really respected that.
There was something accepting about Bill. Maybe an early heart attack and career loss contributed to it. After caring for an invalid mother he had to do it all over again with an invalid wife and after raising five children he raised two more grandchildren. But I never heard any complaints or self-pity from him. He was always balanced and confident.
Bill had a droll sense of humor and even had a basset hound—how cool is that?
One of the things I always admired about my brother Bill was his social consciousness. Like me, he was a principled liberal. He was tireless supporter of a national health care system, wrote many letters to the editor of the local newspaper and to congressmen—not a popular position in East Tennessee. He even made detailed proposals on how to establish workable health care for all. With the many health crises he faced in his personal and family life he was aware of how brutal, expensive and unfair things are in America and did his best to speak out from his tiny soap box.
I am not religious and I never fully understood Bill’s adoption of Catholicism but he really was a believer in the best sense of that religion. He believed in an afterlife, and he believed in its sacraments and the importance of charity and taking care of others.
Oh yes, I am Uncle Jimmie. He left me four wonderful nieces; Julie, Debbie, Kelly and Suzie, and a wonderful nephew, Chip--and their families. We will stay close and remember him always. He brought us all together.
Had he lived longer our father, Pete, could have sung that soliloquy “My Boy Bill”--as a proud father going on about his son. And I can sing it about “My Brother Bill”. I will miss him but will always have his example of a good man to guide me.
San Luis Obispo