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Sandra pays tribute to her late husband and writing partner
Wrangler/writer/broadcaster/and World War II historian Bill McGee, 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 as a cowboy in the hardscrabble years of the Great Depression. He cowboy’d on ranches around his hometown of Malta, a wild and woolly cow town on the harsh Montana Hi-Line.
After fighting in the Pacific during World War II, Bill returned to cowboying. From 1947 to 1949, he was the head dude wrangler on Nevada’s most exclusive dude and divorce ranch, the Flying M.E., 20 miles south of Reno.
It was the heyday of the Reno divorce era, when Reno was known worldwide as the “Divorce Capital of the World”.
The Flying M.E. catered to an elite clientele. Wealthy Easterners with names like Astor, du Pont, and Roosevelt, and and Hollywood celebrities like Clark Gable and Ava Gardner.
In the 1950s, Bill left cowboying and made a successful transition into the broadcasting industry. During his 32-year career, he began writing and wrote twelve “how-to” books to teach radio and television station management and their sales reps how to sell.
Thanks to a mutual friend, Bill and I met at a Thanksgiving gathering in 1981. From our first date, I knew this Montana cowboy was the one for me.
I was enthralled with Bill’s stories about the Flying M.E. and the changing cast of fascinating characters who came and went every six weeks. His stories were like a Hollywood movie coming to life. I said, “Bill, you have to write about those years.”
In 2000, we began our first collaboration, The Divorce Seekers – A Photo Memoir of a Nevada Dude Wrangler. I was passionate about the subject, so much so that 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 right on the cover.
In his retirement years, Bill became a World War II Pacific war historian of note. The Marine Corps League Magazine described Bill’s signature writing style as journalistic, straightforward, and “as precise and economical as a Mickey Spillane novel.”
When asked about his writing habits, he said, in his deep Montana drawl, “There’s only one way to write… ass in seat.” I would soften this to “derriere in chair”.
Our writing collaboration lasted 20 years. As a husband and wife writing duo, I think we did well — except for the urge to edit each other’s copy.
Bill loved loved the outdoors. He scaled the summits of mountains. He ran rivers. 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.
Bill and I were what’s called a cowboy and the lady couple. Despite our differences, we were happily married for 38 years.
I loved to dress up in duds from the old West.
And Bill would don his Western tux to escort me to opening night at the ballet. But, as the saying goes, he never got above his Montana raisin’.
When describing Bill, I like 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. Gruff-natured and quick-tempered at times, but solid on qualities that mattered… dependability, trustworthiness, and honesty.
After Bill’s passing, I was in a Hospice Grief Group. 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. Then I would share this 700-word tribute to him. I think Bill would have answered back with something like, “Well, Sandra, it reads okay, but let’s cut it in half… and edit.”
What did I learn from Bill? Now that you know a bit about the man, you’ll understand if I say it wasn’t how to be more gentle or more patient. I did learn how to listen to my creative voice and how to make a decision and stick to it…. well, I’m still working on the latter.