The Last Roundup – Remembering Bill McGee

William “Bill” L. McGee rode peacefully to his last roundup on October 30, 2019 from his home in Napa, California. His co-author/wife Sandra remembers Bill’s life and legacy in the following tribute…

 

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

Bill had the reputation of being a straight-shootin’ talker. 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 McGee: strong-willed, quick-tempered, but solid on qualities that mattered… trustworthiness, honesty, dependability.

Bill was born and raised a cowboy in Montana. He loved the outdoors. He scaled the summits of mountains. He hiked the trails in Yosemite, the Sierras, and the Tetons. He helped to build the Tahoe Rim Trail. (In 2008, he 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. Though he often donned a Western tuxedo to escort me to the ballet, he never forgot 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.

At the time of Bill’s passing, he had recounted his life in a series of six memoirs, with a seventh in the chute… 

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, he moved with his parents and siblings to the small cow town of Malta on the Montana Hi-Line. When the Great Depression hit, Bill’s father, a rancher and Border Patrolman, left Bill’s mother and three siblings and went off to Alaska. He claimed Montana was “getting too crowded.”

Montana Memoir recounts these hardscrabble years. As Bill recalled, “We didn’t know we were poor. We always had clothes on our backs, even if they didn’t fit. I was ‘farmed out’ at age seven to live and work on the Carl Holm ranch. It meant one less mouth to feed at home.” Bill believed growing up in those hardscrabble years instilled in him the work ethic he needed later on to succeed in life and business. (Photo: Bill, center, branding spring calves on the Carl Holm ranch, Bennett Lake community, Montana, 1935)

Bluejacket Odyssey, 1942-1946: Guadalcanal to Bikini 

Bill McGee on liberty, Honolulu, 1943Like so many other patriotic youths, when America entered World War II on December 7, 1941, Bill was chomping at the bit to get into the action. But he had to wait a year until he turned seventeen. To contribute to the war effort and the family kitty, he dropped out of high school and got a job as a welder in the Kaiser Shipyard in Vancouver, Washington.

On his seventeenth birthday, he went straight to the Marines recruiting office. The doctor found a hernia in his groin and suggested he go next door and join the Navy, who would take him as is and operate if necessary. Bill believed that hernia saved his life, as the odds of a Marine living to a ripe old age in 1942 were not very good.

Bill served as a Gunner’s Mate in the U.S. Navy Armed Guard and fought in the Pacific theater. He survived two vicious enemy attacks: the first by air off Guadalcanal on 16 June 1943; the second by torpedo on 23 June 1943. Years later, he learned the air attack was the second largest since Pearl Harbor. For his participation in the air attack, he received the Bronze Star. (Photo: On liberty in Honolulu, 1943)

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

Bill McGee on the gun turret of the USS Fall RiverAfter the war, Bill had one year left to serve. He was hoping for duty in the Atlantic Fleet and a chance to visit European ports. However, he was assigned to the heavy cruiser USS Fall River (CA-131), the Flagship for the Target Fleet at Operation Crossroads, the first postwar atomic bomb tests at the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The Fall River was responsible for positioning the target vessels for the atomic blasts and afforded Bill a front row seat at what historians called the dawing of the nuclear age. (Photo: Bill on the gun turret of the USS Fall River.)

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

In 1946, after his discharge from the Navy, Bill returned to cowboying. He hoped to someday own a cattle and guest ranch.

He was a horse wrangler in Yellowstone National Park. He was a trail guide 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., twenty miles south of Reno in Washoe Valley. The “M.E.” (for Emmy Wood, the legendary proprietor) was a luxurious dude ranch that 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. Bill said those years were some of the best of his life.

In 1949, he married a young divorce seeker he met on the ranch.  Unfortunately, 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 in December ’49 with his bride to visit her hometown of Englewood, New Jersey.  (Photo: On the Flying M.E., 1947)

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 and ranching. But, as the saying goes, life happens when you’re making other plans.

In Englewood, New Jersey, Bill was offered a job selling Willys Jeeps with the prediction that he would make more money in a month selling Jeeps than in a year of cowboying. Bill gave it a try and learned he had a real talent for sales. In a few months, he was making the kind of money he was told he would. Back on the West Coast, he applied his sales and deal-making skills to the world trade business. In a few years, he became a top importer of steel and wire products on the West Coast.

Bill said these were the years when he turned in his Levis and boots for Brooks Brothers suits. He liked sales and decided to focus on a career in sales. He never looked back. (Photo: At a Tokyo nightclub with Mitsubishi executives, 1955)

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

In 1958, Bill set his sights on a career in the entertainment business. He sought the advice of a former Flying M.E. guest, director/producer Norman Tokar (“My Favorite Wife”, “Leave It To Beaver”). Bill was interested in directing or producing. However, Norman suggested Bill use his proven sales and deal-making skills and look for work as a talent agent or syndicated television programs sales rep.

Syndicated Television Program Sales, 1958-1962
Bill’s first job in the industry was with the television arm of Allied Artists selling syndicated television programs, such as “Lassie,” “Fury,” “Our Miss Brooks,” and “My Little Margie”. In August 1958, he joined the Jack Wrather/Lew Grade joint venture, Independent Television Corporation (ITC). He sold “Four Just Men,” “Cannonball,” “Danger Man,” and many other early television series. The ITC years were interrupted with a brief stint at NBC Radio in New York City as a Spot Sales rep. But after a few months, Bill returned to ITC. (Photo: “Let’s take off our jackets and get to work.” Addressing a broadcaster’s convention, 1975)

Radio and Television Station Rep, 1962-1967
From 1962 to 1968, Bill was a National Radio and Television station rep for Peters, Griffin, Woodward (PGW) in San Francisco. He was recognized as the PGW Television Colonel of 1964, an award based on sales success.

Television Station Management, 1968-1970
In 1968, was on the team that launched Henry J. Kaiser’s new UHF (ultra-high frequency) station, KBHK-TV, Channel 44, in San Francisco. Bill was at the station when it signed on January 2, 1968, and aired the first-ever, color, live remote telecast from the Cow Palace of the NBA Golden State Warriors-Los Angeles Lakers basketball game. Franklin Mueuli, then-owner of the Warriors, encouraged fans to wear black-tie, and many did.

Bill held sales and management positions at KEMO-TV in San Francisco and WATL-TV in Atlanta. In Atlanta, he recalled taking a dejected Ted Turner to lunch before Turner changed the call letters of his struggling UHF station from WTCG to WTBS, put his UHF television programming up on the satellite for national distribution, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The BMC Years, 1972-1989
Bill observed a need in the business for more sales training for radio and TV station sales reps. Inspired by two of Henry J. Kaiser’s favorite sayings – “Find a need and fill it” and “Problems are only opportunities in work clothes” – Bill launched Broadcast Marketing Company (BMC) in 1971 in his San Francisco apartment with a typewriter, telephone and answering machine. Within a a few years, he was recognized in the industry as a leader and innovator in broadcast sales and management, and 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. Years later, former BMCers recall cringing when they saw 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 he stopped me in the first sentence with an edit.) But former BMCers and I agree he always improved the copy.

There were many “firsts” and awards in Bill’s 32-year career in broadcast sales and marketing
1975 – Created the first nationally syndicated, monthly co-op advertising information service, CO‑OPPORTUNITIES.

1976 – Pioneered the use of a sales presentation film to sell radio advertising with “Get It On, Get It On Radio Now!!”. This was followed by a second sales presentation film, “How To Make Effective Low-Cost Television Commercials”, designed to show small-to-medium size retailers how to be more comfortable with TV commercial production.

1982 – Received Broadcast Pioneer’s “1982 Pioneer Award”.

1986 – Honored by the Builders of Broadcasting for “vision, dedication and achievement in the field of broadcasting.”

1980s – One of six charter members of the Cooperative Advertising Hall of Fame.

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

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

After a year of retirement, Bill missed having a creative project in the works. He began researching his family roots and his service in World War II in the Pacific Theater. He became immersed in his research and wrote ten books; seven co-authored with me. (You can read about my entry into the writing world at Sandra McGee, The Reluctant Writer.)

I urge you to take a look at the impressive list of books Bill wrote in his so-called retirement years: World War II Military Histories and Memoirs. One WWII military history, The Solomons Campaigns, 1942-1943, won the Military Writers Society of America 2018 Silver Medal Award for History:  Another WWII history is on the Marine Corps Commandant’s Professional Reading List for all officer and enlisted Marines, whether active duty or reserve: Pacific Express: The Critical Role of Military Logistics in World War II. 

At the time of writing this tribute, the manuscript for this memoir – the seventh – is awaiting its final polish. Stay tuned…

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