Others have written that they know Bill’s work better than they knew him, but I knew him before I knew his work.
After an outside search that was conducted because our department was engaged in a bitter civil war, Bill was elected chair. Throughout the interview process and in his first weeks in office, he was always personable, cheerful, and completely at ease in what felt to me like a war zone. The first thing he did was to meet with each of us individually to discuss our academic careers. He enthusiastically encouraged each of us improve our scholarly work. He also made it, as Bob Dylan says, “all too concise and too clear” that he expected those who were trying to wage a war of annihilation on their colleagues were to STOP doing so immediately and behave like decently.
As chairman Bill achieved something that no other chairperson had. Our faculty meetings were supposed to last from 1:00 to 2:00, but they had always gone on and on and on. For the entire time that Bill was chair, faculty meetings began exactly at l:00 and ended at 2:00—not 2:05 or even 2:01. Because of his efficiency, we always managed to deal with the entire agenda. And he saw to it that the meetings were civilized!
After he was semi-retired Bill taught one Milton seminar a year. One fall semester I sensed that he might never do it again, so I attended that seminar. Luckily there was a really collegial and intelligent core of graduate students in that seminar, and the seminar was not only wonderful, it got me hooked on Milton. Those students and I all attended his spring seminar on Shakespeare’s history plays. When school was out some of us began, perhaps at Vickie Hodges’s suggestion, to have lunch together, and five or six of us and Bill continued to do that—every Friday for several years until he and Margaret moved to North Carolina. We all got to be really good friends, and Milton was the focus of much of our discussion.
Those lunches were always enriched by his knowledge, his good humor, his wisdom, and his wonderful—sometimes devastating—wit.
Bill and Margaret have remained good friends to me ever since. I have met all four of Bill and Margaret’s children and know that Bill and Margaret did a wonderful job at the most important responsibility any of us has—raising our children to be fine human beings.
Bill gave an enormous amount of time to encouraging others to write and write well. He read, commented very specifically on, and edited all kinds of writing for academics and non-academics as well. He also ran classes for his and other churches here in Houston, usually on Donne or Milton, and ran classes for the senior citizens in the Friends complex at which he and Margaret lived in Greensboro. Such work must have taken an enormous amount of time and effort, but he not only gave freely and generously of his time, but also seemed enthusiastic to help. He was always encouraging, and he was always—even after he was confined to a wheelchair--determined to look on the bright side of things. He was a valuable friend one could always count on, to paraphrase cummings, to laugh your joy and cry your grief.
Although I am by training a twentieth century specialist, I now describe myself as a “Born Again Miltonist.” Because of Bill’s influence I now teach the undergraduate Milton course every year and enjoy every minute of it. Bill helped students who entered his courses terrified of Milton and unable to read Milton’s poetry discover that they COULD understand—and enjoy—Milton’s poetry. He gave his students and me a wonderful gift!
I miss him.