The Last Roundup – Remembering Bill McGee

Sandra wrote this tribute to her late husband and writing partner of 38 years

William L. McGee, AuthorWrangler/writer/broadcaster William L. “Bill” McGee, age 94, rode peacefully to his last roundup on October 30, 2019, from his home in Napa Valley, California.  

Bill was born in 1925 in Montana and grew up cowboying on cattle ranches on the Montana Hi-Line.

Bill’s writing career spanned six decades. He wrote 22 books, including five World War II Pacific war histories and five memoirs. During his 32-year career in broadcasting from 1958 to 1990, he wrote twelve “how-to” guidebooks for broadcast sales and marketing.

His signature writing style has been described as journalistic,  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, he said, in his deep voice and Montana drawl,There’s only one way to write… ass in seat.”

Thanks to a mutual friend, our paths crossed at a Thanksgiving gathering in 1981. From our first date, I knew that Bill McGee, a genuine Montana cowboy-turned broadcaster-turned writer, was the one for me. When describing Bill, I liked to quote a line 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. Yes, gruff-natured and quick-tempered at times, but solid on qualities that mattered…  dependability, trustworthiness, and honesty.

I happened to be a good typist and it wasn’t long before Bill roped me in to type his manuscripts. I didn’t want to, but I did. I claimed he married me just because I could type. In the beginning, I said nothing; I just typed. Then I began gently suggesting an edit here or there.

Back when: On the Flying M.E., 1947

I was particularly enthralled with Bill’s stories about his time from 1947 to 1949 when he was the head dude wrangler on the exclusive Flying M.E. dude-divorce ranch outside of Reno. His stories were like a Hollywood movie coming to life, with names like Astor, du Pont, Clark Gable, and Ava Gardner. I urged him to write about those years.

In 2001, we collaborated on such a book, The Divorce Seekers – A Photo Memoir of a Nevada Dude Wrangler. I was so passionate about the subject, Bill suggested I write a few of the chapters. He was so pleased with my contributions – both in research and writing – he generously gave me co-author credit on the cover. We went on to collaborate on five more books – a WWII Pacific war history on military logistics (which has been on the Marine Corps Commandant’s Professional Reading List for more than a decade and is our best seller) and four memoirs – and my name was on the cover of each book, alongside his.

I saw Bill’s life divided into seven chapters or phases, each showcasing a different facet of his creativity and entrepreneurship. With my help, he wrote about each phase in a series of memoirs-combined-with-history. (You can read about all of Bill’s books-in-print here.)

Bill was a good editor. Sadly, he became legally blind in 2003 from macular degeneration and from then on I read his manuscripts aloud to him. I rarely got beyond the first paragraph without him raising a finger to stop me and make an edit. However, he always improved the copy.

Our writing collaboration lasted 20 years. As a husband and wife writing duo, I think we did wellexcept, perhaps, for the urge to edit each other’s copy.

When Bill wasn’t working or writing, he loved the outdoors. He scaled the summits of mountains. He ran the Colorado River. He skied, played tennis, and golf.  He hiked the trails in Yosemite, the Sierras, and the Tetons. He was one of the first volunteers to help build the Lake Tahoe Rim Trail.

Opposites do attract. I was soft-spoken, loved ballet, and cappuccinos. Bill was outspoken, liked camping, and was fine with instant coffee. Despite our differences, we were happily married for 38 years. Once or twice a year, Bill willingly donned his Western tux to escort me to opening night at the ballet and other galas, but, as the saying goes, he never got above his Montana raisin’.

After Bill’s passing, I was in a Hospice Grief Group for spouses. It was suggested we each write a letter to our dearly-departed, and then write what we thought they would write back to us. In my letter to Bill, I would thank him for bringing me into his writer’s world – as reluctant as I was at first to be a part of it – and then I would share this 800-word tribute to him. I think Bill would have written back to me with something like, “Well, Sandra, it’s okay, but let’s cut it in half and edit.”

In conclusion, some favorite photographs…