The Last Roundup – Remembering Bill McGee

On October 30, 2019, William “Bill” L. McGee, age 94, rode peacefully to the last roundup from his home in Napa, California. Bill was surrounded by his wife, Sandra; his best friend of 50 years, Don Ilfeld; and his dedicated caregivers Linda Gasaway and Eric Treskon of Hired Hands.

Reno historian Neal Cobb described Bill as “a genuine cowboy with the heart to go with it.” Sandra likes to quote a line from “Sun and Saddle Leather” (1922) by South Dakota cowboy poet 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 Montana cowboy, Bill McGee, known for his straight talk, which also later became his signature writing style. He was strong-willed and had a quick-temper, but was solid on qualities that mattered: trustworthiness, honesty, dependability. He was self-educated and succeeded in whatever career he set his mind to. His longest run was 32 years in broadcast sales and marketing, where he distinguished himself as a leader and innovator in cooperative advertising. He loved the outdoors. He scaled the summits of many mountains. When he tried for Mt. Everest, he regretted having to turn back at Base Camp, unable to connect with a professional expedition. He hiked in Yosemite, the Sierras, and the Tetons. He helped to build the Tahoe Rim Trail and dedicated a mile to Emily Pentz Wood, the owner of the famous Flying M.E. dude ranch outside of Reno where Bill worked 1947-1949. He ran the Colorado River three times. He donned a Western tux and escorted Sandra to opening nights of the ballet. No matter what he was doing, he never forgot his Montana raisin’ and his cowboy roots. He loved country music and listened to it to the very end.

Bill was married to his first wife, Joan, for 22 years. He is survived by their four children: Lucy Haynes, Betsy McGee (Bill) Clarke, William Allison McGee, Katherine McGee; and granddaughter Susan Haynes. Bill and his second wife, Sandra, were married for 38 years. They co-authored ten books. Sandra says they worked well together “except for the urge to change each other’s copy.” Bill and Sandra will be forever grateful to Hospice by the Bay in Marin and Napa counties for going above and beyond to make his life as comfortable as possible in his last years. There will be no memorial service. Remains will be placed at Arlington National Cemetery.

Bill’s life was neatly divided into seven phases…  

The Montana Years, 1925-1942

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 to Alaska, claiming Montana was “getting too crowded.” In 1932, to make ends meet, Bill’s mother “farmed out” Bill to a neighboring cattle rancher, so there would be one less mouth to feed at home. For seven years, Bill worked on the Holm ranch for room and board, and a new pair of Levis every year. 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 Holm ranch, Bennett Lake community, Montana, 1935)

The Bluejacket Years, 1942-1946

When America entered World War II on December 7, 1941, like so many other patriotic youths, Bill was chomping at the bit to get into the action, but he had to wait a year until he turned seventeen. Meantime, he dropped out of high school and worked as a welder in the Kaiser Shipyard in Vancouver, Washington. On his seventeenth birthday, he tried to enlist in the Marines, but the doctor found a hernia in his groin and suggested he go next door and join the Navy. 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 was a Gunner’s Mate in the Naval Armed Guard and survived two enemy attacks: the first by air off Guadalcanal on 16 June 1943, for which he received the Bronze Star (it was the second largest air attack since Pearl Harbor); the other by torpedo on 23 June 1943. After the war, Bill served on 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. His military service earned him the honors of being a member of the Greatest Generation, a WWII veteran, and an atomic veteran. (Photo: On liberty in Honolulu, 1943)

The Cowboying Years, 1947-1949

After his discharge from the Navy, Bill returned to cowboying, with the hopes of owning his own cattle and guest ranch someday. In 1947, he worked as a horse wrangler, trail guide, and deer-hunting guide in Yellowstone National Park and Lake Tahoe. Then he landed the coveted job as head dude wrangler on the famous Flying M.E., twenty miles south of Reno, Nevada’s most exclusive dude ranch catering to wealthy Easterners and socialites seeking a six-week Reno divorce. He 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 1948, he fell in love with Joan Allison, a young divorce seeker on the ranch, from Englewood, New Jersey. In 1949, they married secretly in Fallon, Nevada. Unfortunately for Bill, being a dude wrangler on the ranch was no place for a married man. He stowed his saddle and footlocker on the Flying M.E. and left with his wife in December 1949. (Photo: On the Flying M.E., 1947)

The Transition Years, 1950-1958

Bill had every intention of seeking other work in ranching and cowboying. But as the saying goes, life happens when you’re making other plans. Bill was offered a job selling Willys Jeeps with the promise that he could make more money in a month selling Jeeps than in a year of cowboying. That turned out to be true and Bill learned he had a talent for selling and deal-making. He applied that talent to the world trade business and became a top importer of steel and wire products on the West Coast. Bill said of these years that he turned in his Levis and boots for Brooks Brothers suits, focused on a career in sales, and never looked back. (Photo: At a Tokyo nightclub with Mitsubishi executives, 1955)

The Broadcasting Years, 1958-1989

Syndicated Television Program Sales, 1958-1962
In 1958, Bill set his sights on a career in the entertainment business. He flew to Hollywood and met with a former Flying M.E. ranch 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 in a talent agency or selling syndicated television programs.

Bill’s first job in the industry was with the television arm of Allied Artists selling “Lassie,” “Fury,” “Our Miss Brooks,” and “My Little Margie”. In August 1958, he got in on the ground floor of the exciting Jack Wrather/Lew Grade joint venture, Independent Television Corporation (ITC), and sold “Four Just Men,” “Cannonball,” “Danger Man,” and many other early television series. The ITC years were interrupted briefly with a job at NBC Radio as a Spot Sales rep. It didn’t take long before Bill tired of the “Connecticut lunchbox” commute and returned to ITC.

National Radio and Television Station Rep, 1962-1967
In 1962, Bill was a radio and television station rep for the esteemed Peters, Griffin, Woodward (PGW) and managed their San Francisco office.

Television Station Management, 1968-1970
In 1968, Bill 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.

Moving to U.S. Communications in 1970, Bill held sales and management positions with KEMO-TV in San Francisco and WATL-TV 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 is history. (Photo: Signing the WATL-TV contract with Georgia Tech’s Athletic Director Bobby Dodd for first-time regular season telecasts, 1971)

 

The BMC Years, 1971-1989
Bill saw a need for more sales training for radio and TV station sales reps. In 1971, 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 his San Francisco apartment with a typewriter, telephone and answering machine. In a few years, he became recognized in the industry as a leader and innovator in broadcast sales and management, and cooperative advertising.

During the BMC years, Bill and his BMC staff wrote nine “how-to” broadcast sales guidebooks, including the highly-successful “Changes, Challenges and Opportunities in The New Electronic Media.” Former BMCers recall cringing when they saw Bill pick up his red editing pen. Years later after Bill became legally blind in 2003, Sandra recalls cringing when she would begin to read aloud her pages to Bill and he stopped her in the first sentence with an edit. But he always improved the copy.

In 1975, Bill created the first nationally syndicated, monthly co-op advertising information service, CO‑OPPORTUNITIES.

In 1976, he pioneered the use of film to sell radio advertising with “Get It On, Get It On Radio Now!!”. This was followed by another 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.

Bill received many broadcasting awards during his 32-year career, including Broadcast Pioneer’s “1982 Pioneer Award” and the Builders of Broadcasting honor in 1986 for “vision, dedication and achievement in the field of broadcasting.” He was one of six charter members of the Cooperative Advertising Hall of Fame.

In 1984, Bill received an offer he couldn’t resist and sold CO-OPPORTUNITIES to Jefferson-Pilot Communications in Charlotte, North Carolina. He retired with his second wife, Sandra, to Incline Village, Nevada. (Photo: “Let’s take off our jackets and get to work.” Addressing a broadcaster’s convention, 1975)

Author, Publisher, Marketing Man, 1990-2015

After a year of retirement, Bill missed having a creative project in the works. He immersed himself in World War II military history in the Pacific theater and authored five books. He was proud when, in 2009, “Pacific Express: The Critical Role of Military Logistics in World War II” was selected to be on the Marine Corps Commandant’s Professional Reading List on the subject of Logistics for all officer and enlisted Marines, whether active duty or reserve. In 2018, “The Solomons Campaigns, 1942-1943: From Guadalcanal to Bougainville” won the Military Writers Society of America Silver Medal Award for History. Bill was the guest speaker at numerous WWII veterans’ reunions and conventions. As one of the few remaining atomic veterans from Operation Crossroads, Bill was sought out by journalists and TV news reporters for his thoughts on the use of the atomic bomb.

Bill and Sandra co-authored seven memoirs, each based on a phase of Bill’s life. Six have been published; the seventh is in the chute for 2020. (Photo: Joanne A. Calitri International, Montecito Journal, 2002)

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