Bill always loved words. By fourth grade he had a card file full of them. He liked reading the dictionary and boasted that he had found the longest word in the English language. It was in his file. The word he lorded over his siblings was antidisestablishmentarianism. In a way it defined him. He was oppositional and conservative politically but he loved challenging the establishment with outlier theories like Velikofskys catastrophism. He was the kind of person who enjoyed public speaking best when Bards purple-hair students shared their thoughts across the river with crew-cut cadets at West Point.
By fifth grade our mother scoured Little Rock, AR, to find a French teacher, Gabby Edmonds, who adored her sessions with Bill. He now lorded it over his siblings in two languages. By eighth grade the nuns at Holy Souls School persuaded our parents that Bills love of language would be nurtured best in boarding school.
After a summer in Michigan where he broke his shoulder falling from a very high rope swing tied to a tree half up a sand dune, Bill was sent to Portsmouth Priory in Rhode Island. It happened that the airplane trip from Little Rock took two days with a layover in NYC. When our mother returned from putting Bill on the plane the school called to say the electricity was down due to a hurricane and school was delaying the opening for a week. Too late. Bill arrived and spent his first week in boarding school alone in the infirmary waiting for school to open. He loved walking in the woods and sometime near that premature beginning, a skunk sprayed him. A combination of southern charm, a broken arm and a distinct smell made him so memorable he was elected class president. Politics was not really his strong suit and he tried to transfer out, but ultimately stayed at Portsmouth where he fell in love with Greek, Latin, western literature and poetry.
While at Harvard, Bill met Robert Lowell, Robert Fitzgerald and Richard Wilbur, poets he admired greatly. And the whole family figured he was homosexual. In those days one did not readily come out, so he was well into his thirties be the time he told us. By that time it was no surprise to anyone.
Bills health was always precarious and he and we all thought hed die before he was fifty. It was a surprise when he didnt die young. And now it is a surprise that he died. We will miss him on holidays and visits to New York and when something excellent reminds us of how much he would have appreciated it.
Bill was Bill. A brilliant, extrovert, poet, linguist, professor, public speaker uncle, brother. He wasnt particularly big on the afterlife, but I hope there is one. Id like to be with him again.
Talmage Mullen Steele,
Oldest sister of
William C. Mullen
Talmage Mullen Steele