The Last Roundup – Remembering Bill McGee

Wrangler/writer William “Bill” L. McGee, age 94, rode peacefully to his last roundup on October 30, 2019 from his home in Napa Valley, California. Sandra wrote this tribute to her husband and partner of 38 years…

Publicity photo of William L. McGee with his prized roping saddle from the 1940s.

Bill McGee’s writing career spanned six decades. He wrote 22 books, all in his signature writing style described as journalistic, 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’ 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, he -as the saying goes – never got above his Montana raisin’. Bill 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

 

Cover and link to book page for "Montana Memoir"Bill McGee 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.

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, three siblings, and he worked together as a family and what they did to make ends meet in those hardscrabble years.

In Bill’s words: “I was farmed out, as it was called, at age seven to Carl Holm, 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.”

Bill McGee (center) branding spring calves on the Holm ranch outside of Malta, Montana, 1932.

Bill McGee (center) branding spring calves on the Holm ranch outside of Malta, Montana, 1932.

 

Bluejacket Odyssey, 1942-1946: Guadalcanal to Bikini 

Cover and link to book page for "Bluejacket Odyssey, 1942-1946"When America entered World War II on December 7, 1941, Bill McGee was sixteen. Like so many other youths his age, he was chomping at the bit to get into the fight, but he had to wait until he turned seventeen. While he waited, he worked as a welder in the Kaiser shipyard in Vancouver, Washington, and contributed to the war effort as part of Henry J. Kaiser’s emergency shipbuilding program.

The day Bill turned seventeen, he joined the U.S. Navy. He was assigned to the Naval Armed Guard, the special service branch of the 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.

In Bluejacket Odyssey, Bill combines memoir with history 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 Bill’s first of five World War II Pacific war military histories.)

Bill McGee on Liberty in Honolulu, 1943.

Bill McGee on Liberty in Honolulu, 1943

 

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

Cover and link to book page for "Operation Crossroads, Lest We Forget!"

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

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

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

Bill McGee on the gun turret of the USS Fall River (CA-131), 1946

Bill McGee on the gun turret of the USS Fall River (CA-131), 1946

 

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

Cover and link to book page for "The Divorce Seekers"After his discharge from the Navy in 1946, Bill McGee returned to his first love- 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 landed the coveted job as head dude wrangler on the famous Flying M.E. dude ranch, twenty miles south of Reno. 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.

“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,” Bill liked to say.

The Divorce Seekers recaptures the heyday of the Reno divorce era in a collection of Bill’s stories and 502 photos.

Nevada dude wrangler Bill McGee on the Flying M.E., 1947

Bill McGee on the Flying M.E., 1947

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

Cover of "How I Learned To Sell and Make Deals" by William L. McGee with a link to book pageBill’s plans were to own and operate his own cattle ranch someday. But, as the saying goes, real life happens when you’re making other plans.

In 1949, Bill married a young divorce seeker he met on the Flying M.E. In December, she took him home to Englewood, New Jersey, to meet her family and friends, and celebrate the holidays.

At a cocktail party, Bill met the head of the Willys Jeep distributor for New Jersey. “Bill, I’ve been watching you . You’re good with people and 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 was reluctant to be sidetracked from his plans, but he needed to make some money and decided to give Willys Jeeps a try.

A year later, Bill was a top salesman with Oldsmobile and making more money in one month than he’d ever make in a year of cowboying. He was good at sales and, furthermore, he liked it. Selling was creative and a challenge. He decided to stay with sales and never looked back.

Bill describes this year as my transition from Levis and boots to Brooks Brothers suits.  

In this memoir, Bill shares the early lessons he learned to be successful in sales. He moves on to a career the world trade business and becomes a top importer of wire and steel products on the West Coast. 

Bill McGee (2nd from left) in the world trade business. At a Tokyo nightclub with Mitsubishi executives, 1955

Bill McGee (2nd from left) in the world trade business. At a Tokyo nightclub with Mitsubishi executives, 1955

 

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

Cover of "The Broadcasting Years" by William L. McGee and link to book page.

In 1958, feeling the need for a change, Bill set his sights on the entertainment business in Hollywood, with an eye to becoming a producer in the film industry.

Doing his research, he sought the advice of director/producer Norman Tokar (My Favorite WifeLeave It To Beaver). Bill had met Norman Tokar in 1948 on the Flying M.E. Norman suggested rather than try to break into producing (Bill was in his early thirties with a wife and four children to support), Bill use his sales and deal making skills and look for a position with a talent agency or a syndicator of television programs.  Bill took Norman’s advice.

Bill landed a position 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 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 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. He soon became recognized in the broadcasting industry as a leader and innovator in broadcast sales and marketing, and cooperative advertising.

Bill wrote 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 picked up his dreaded red editing pen. Later, when Bill was legally blind from macular degeneration, I recall cringing when I would read my pages aloud to him and he stopped me in the first paragraph with an edit. However, former BMCers and I agreed: he always improved the copy.

The Broadcasting Years is recounted 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 Bill’s signature straightforward writing style, he 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. In 1982, Bill was inducted into 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).

"Let's take off our jackets and get to work." Bill McGee at a broadcasters convention, 1970s.

“Let’s take off our jackets and get to work.” Bill McGee at a broadcasters convention, 1970s.

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

In 1984, Bill received an offer he couldn’t refuse from Jefferson-Pilot Communications in Charlotte, North Carolina, to buy his highly-successful national CO-OPPORTUNITIES service.

After a year of semi-retirement, travel and golf, Bill missed having a creative project in the works. He wrote for his Military Service Records and began seeking answers to what had happened in June 1943 when his Task Force was viciously attacked by the Japanese off Guadalcanal. His research resulted in Bluejacket Odyssey, 1942-1946: Guadalcanal to Bikini, the first of five World War II Pacific war military histories. His exhaustive research and straightforward narrative garnered instant praise and established Bill as a highly-respected military historian. 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. Bill was proud of these achievements. 

In 2000, Bill and I began our writing collaboration on The Divorce Seekers: A Photo Memoir of a Nevada Dude Wrangler. We continued to work together for 19 years and co-authored a total of seven books.

Bill’s seventh memoir, Author, Publisher, Marketing Man, 1990-2019, is awaiting its final polish.

For more about me, Sandra McGee, The Reluctant Writer.

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