The Last Roundup – Remembering Bill McGee

On October 30, 2019, William “Bill” L. McGee rode peacefully to his last roundup from his home in Napa, California. I wrote this tribute to remember Bill’s life and legacy of work…

William "Bill" L. McGee

Bill McGee’s writing career spanned six decades. He wrote 22 books, all in his signature spare and straightforward style, described by one reviewer “as precise and economical as a Mickey Spillane novel.” (Marine Corps League Magazine)

Bill had the reputation of being a straight-shootin’ author. When asked about his writing habits, Bill said, “There’s only one way to write… ass in seat.”

The ideas for his books came from his life and the history of which he was a part. Barnaby Conrad, founder of the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, wrote: “Bill McGee is no armchair historian … He’s lived what he writes about whether it’s joining the Navy in ’42 at age seventeen simply to get into the fight, or cowboying in the West in the postwar ’40s, or working in broadcasting in the early days of 1950s and ’60s television.”

Reno historian Neal Cobb described Bill as “a genuine cowboy with the heart to go with it.” I like to quote a line from Sun and Saddle Leather (1922 edition) by South Dakota cowboy poet Charles Badger Clark: “Cowboys are the sternest critics of those who would represent the West. No hypocrisy, no bluff, no pose can evade them.” This describes Bill. Gruff-natured at times, quick-tempered, but solid on qualities that mattered… trustworthiness, honesty, dependability.

Bill loved the outdoors. He scaled the summits of many mountains. He hiked the trails in Yosemite, the Sierras, and the Tetons. He helped to build the Tahoe Rim Trail. (In 2008, Bill and I dedicated a mile of the trail to Emily Pentz Wood, the owner of the famous Flying M.E. dude ranch, where Bill worked from 1947 to 1949.) He ran the Colorado River three times. He skied, played tennis and golf.

Bill and I were married for 38 years. Thanks to his hard work and entrepreneurship, we enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle. Though he often donned a Western tuxedo to escort me to the ballet, as the saying goes, he never got above his Montana raisin’. He loved country music (Hank Williams and Johnny Cash were his favorites) and was listening to “country” on his last day.

I like to say as husband/wife co-authors we worked well together, “except for the urge to edit each other’s copy.”

Bill’s remains will be placed at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D.C.

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At the time of Bill McGee’s passing, he had recounted his life in a series of six memoirs, with a seventh in the chute. Here’s an overview of Bill’s life as told through his six published memoirs… 

Montana Memoir: The Hardscrabble Years, 1925-1942

Bill McGee (center) on the Holm ranch, 1935

Bill was born on September 30, 1925 in Livingston, Montana. In 1926, the family moved to Malta, a small cowtown built on the Great Northern Railway line on the bleak and harsh Montana Hi-Line.

Montana Memoir  follows Bill’s life from 1925 to 1942 as the Depression-era son of a scoundrel father. After being abandoned by his father in the early days of the Great Depression (his father went to Alaska, claiming Montana was getting too crowded), Bill tells how his mother and three siblings pulled together in those hardscrabble years to barely survive and make ends meet. (Photo: Bill, center, branding spring calves on the Carl Holm ranch, Bennett Lake community, Montana, 1935)

Author Bill McGee (left) and his three siblings, Montana, 1930In Bill’s words: “I was farmed out, as it was called, at age seven to a neighboring rancher to work for my room and board. It meant one less mouth to feed at home. My mother, three siblings and I didn’t know we were poor. We always had clothes on our backs, even if they didn’t fit, and something on the table to eat. To this day, I honestly believe those difficult years instilled in me the very qualities I would need later on to make it in business and life.” (Photo: “The Ragamuffins” – Bill McGee [left] and his three siblings, Malta, Montana, 1930)

 

 

Bluejacket Odyssey, 1942-1946: Guadalcanal to Bikini 

Bill McGee on liberty, Honolulu, 1943

When America entered World War II on December 7, 1941, Bill was sixteen and chomping at the bit to get into the fight, but he had to wait a year to enlist. He trained as a welder in the new Kaiser shipyard in Vancouver, Washington, and contributed to the war effort in Kaiser’s emergency shipbuilding program.

The day Bill turned seventeen, he joined up for four years in the Naval Armed Guard, the special service branch of the U.S. Navy responsible for defending U.S. and Allied merchant ships, their valuable cargo, and their crews from attack by enemy aircraft, submarines, and surface ships during World War II. He wanted to be a Marine, but the doctor found a hernia and suggested Bill go next door and join the Navy, who would take him as is. Bill believed that hernia saved his life because the odds of a Marine living to a ripe old age in 1942 were not good. (Photo: On liberty in Honolulu, 1943)

In Bluejacket Odyssey, Bill combines fact with memoir to tell the story of his wartime service in the Pacific theater. He was awarded a Bronze Star for his participation in a vicious enemy attack by air on June 16, 1943 off Guadalcanal. Bluejacket Odyssey would be the first of five World War II military histories Bill would write.

Operation Crossroads, Lest We Forget! An Eyewitness Account, 1946

Bill McGee on the gun turret of the USS Fall River

When the war ended, Bill had one year left to serve. He put in for assignment to the Atlantic Fleet, but instead received orders to report to the heavy cruiser USS Fall River (CA-131). Destination: Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The Fall River would be the Flagship for the Target Fleet at Operation Crossroads, the first postwar atomic bomb tests. (Photo: Bill on the gun turret of the USS Fall River, 1946.)

In Operation Crossroads, Bill provides his eyewitness account of what many historians consider the dawning of the nuclear age. Once again, Bill combines fact with memoir to tell his story. The publication date was July 2016 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Crossroads.

Later in life, Bill would be known as an “atomic veteran”. He bore many effects from his 1946 exposure to ionizing radiation in various forms of cancer and perhaps vision loss. 

The Divorce Seekers: A Photo Memoir of a Nevada Dude Wrangler, 1947-1949

After his discharge from the Navy in 1946, Bill returned to cowboying. His plans were to someday own a ranch, run some cattle, and take in a few paying guests.

He worked as a horse wrangler in Yellowstone National Park and a trail and deer-hunting guide for the Bob Skates stables at Lake Tahoe. Then he got lucky and landed the coveted job as head dude wrangler on the famous Flying M.E. dude ranch, twenty miles south of Reno in Washoe Valley. The “M.E.” (for Emmy Wood, the legendary proprietor) catered to wealthy Easterners and socialites seeking a six-week divorce. Bill went on trail rides with a du Pont and an Astor. He went hunting and drinking with Clark Gable and Ava Gardner. (Photo: On the Flying M.E., 1947)

“At the age of 22, and surrounded by all those women on the Flying M.E., I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Those were some of the best years of my life,” he always said.

In 1949, he fell in love and married a young divorce seeker he met on the ranch.  Unfortunately for Bill, being a dude wrangler on a divorce ranch (as they were called) was no place for a married man. Bill stowed his saddle and footlocker on the Flying M.E. and left with his bride in December ’49 to visit her hometown of Englewood, New Jersey.

How I Learned To Sell and Make Deals, 1950-1958: Memoir of a Merchant Man

Bill McGee (2nd from left) at a Tokyo nightclub with Mitsubishi executives, 1955.

Bill had every intention of returning to cowboying.  But, as the saying goes, real life happens when you’re making other plans.

One evening at a cocktail party in Englewood, Bill was approached by the head of the Willys Jeep distributor for New Jersey. “Bill, I’ve been watching you at this party. I think you’d make a heckuva good salesman. How would you like to make more money in a month selling Willys Jeeps than I bet you make in a year of cowboying?”

Bill thought the offer over carefully and decided to give selling cars a try.

With his usual frankness, Bill tells how he discovered his talent for sales and deal making, and, furthermore, how much he enjoys the challenges and creativity in selling. He decides to leave cowboying and focus on a career in sales. He describes this phase of his life as my transition from Levis and boots to Brooks Brothers suits. He never looks back. 

In 1952, Bill joins an import company in San Francisco. Within a few years, he rose to an executive level position and was one of the top importers of wire and steel products on the West Coast.  (Photo: At a Tokyo nightclub with Mitsubishi executives, 1955)

In this memoir, Bill shares the lessons he learned to be successful in sales... lessons which would serve him well in his next career. 

The Broadcasting Years, 1958-1989: Memoir of a Television Pioneer

In 1958, Bill set his sights on a career in the entertainment business, with a particular eye to producing.

He sought the advice of director/producer Norman Tokar (My Favorite WifeLeave It To Beaver), a guest he met on the Flying M.E. Norman suggested Bill seek positions where he could use his sales and deal making skills, such as being a talent agent or selling syndicated television programs.  (Photo: “Let’s take off our jackets and get to work.” Addressing a broadcaster’s convention, 1975)

Bill took Norman’s advice. In 1958, Bill’s first job in the industry was with the television arm of Allied Artists, selling off-network syndicated television programs, such as My Little Margie and Our Miss Brooks. This was followed by four years with Independent Television Corporation (ITC), the exciting joint venture between America’s Jack Wrather and Britain’s media mogul Lew Grade, selling first-run television series, such as Cannonball and The Four Just Men.

In this frank narrative, Bill takes the reader behind the scenes into a “mad men” world with its competitive edge, creative people, deadlines, too much travel, and many martini lunches. 

He chronicles his 32-year career in four parts:

Part I: “Syndicated Television Program Sales, 1958-1962”
Part II: “National Radio and Television Station Rep, 1962-1967”
Part III: “Television Station Management, 1968-1970”
Part IV:  “The BMC Story, 1971-1989”

In 1971, inspired by the words of Henry J. Kaiser – “Find a need and fill it” – Bill launches his own company in San Francisco, Broadcast Marketing Company or “BMC”. The need, as Bill saw it, was for sales training for local television station reps. Bill filled this need with sales training materials and seminars. Among his numerous accomplishments during the BMC years, he became recognized in the broadcasting industry as a leader and innovator in broadcast sales and marketing, and the little-used and understood cooperative advertising.

During the BMC years, Bill authored eleven “how-to” broadcast sales guidebooks, including the highly-successful Changes, Challenges and Opportunities in The New Electronic Media, purchased nationwide by major corporations. Former BMCers recall cringing when Bill pick up his dreaded red editing pen. Later, when Bill was legally blind from macular degeneration, I recall cringing when I began reading my pages aloud to him and was interrupted in the first sentence with an edit. However, former BMCers and I agreed: he always improved the copy.

There were many “firsts” in Bill’s broadcasting career and numerous awards and recognition. In 1982, Bill was inducted in Broadcast Pioneers, founded in 1942 by H. V. Kaltenborn, the well-known CBS and NBC radio commentator. The honor recognized Bill as one “who has served the great cause of broadcasting since 1958 and is hereby recognized as a Pioneer” (hence the use of “Pioneer” in the memoir’s subtitle).

In 1984, Bill received an offer he couldn’t resist. He sold his CO-OPPORTUNITIES service to Jefferson-Pilot Communications in Charlotte, North Carolina and Bill and I retired to Incline Village, Nevada. But not for long.

Author, Publisher, Marketing Man, 1990-2019: A Memoir (In the chute)

Bill missed having a creative project in the works. He began researching his service in World War II in the Pacific theater. The research spawned five World War II military histories. The Solomons Campaigns, 1942-1943 won the Military Writers Society of America 2018 Silver Medal Award for History.  Pacific Express: The Critical Role of Military Logistics in World War II is on the Marine Corps Commandant’s Professional Reading List for all officer and enlisted Marines, whether active duty or reserve. These achievements made Bill proud. (The manuscript for this memoir is awaiting rewrites and a final polish. It may be published as a series of blog posts, in addition to print and ebook editions.)

My collaboration with Bill included Pacific Express and six memoirs. You can read about my entry into the writing world at Sandra McGee, The Reluctant Writer.

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