Sunday, June 09, 2019

Birthday Boy

Bill and Tracy
Two weekends ago I attended the 70th birthday party of a dear and longtime friend in Austin. I’ve known Bill for forty-five years, so he was very young when we first met. And he looked way younger than his years. He basically seemed like a kid to me and I was 32. When we spoke on the phone to confirm my plans to attend his birthday celebration I told him he would always be 25 to me. He laughed. His boyish appearance is a standing joke between us.

As long as I have known Bill and as close as we are, I learned more about him on my three-day visit than I had learned in forty-five years. I knew he had come from modest means, but I didn't realize that he grew up truly poor in financial terms. He is a real self-made man. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say he’s a hero figure to his brother, his sister-in-law and his boys. Not to mention his partner, Tracy, who loves him to death. More on that later.

He told me that his father couldn’t read or write and worked three jobs to support the family. His brother told me that their mother could make a meal out of rocks and twigs and that beans and cornbread were a staple. Bill told me that there was a military high school and junior college in his hometown of Barnesville, Georgia and that tuition was free for locals. So, when he was twelve he told his mother he wanted to attend the school. At that tender age he saw Gordon Military College as his pathway up.

His mother told him, “Bill, we can’t afford it.” He replied, “Don’t worry about the money. I’ll take care of that.” So, he went to work at 12 years old and never stopped working. From the get-go he had aspirations that kept his upward trajectory steep and unrelenting. I don’t think it was a specific goal that motivated him. It was simply to grow and prosper. And so he did.

He told me, “My mother was my biggest supporter. She encouraged me. ‘Bill, you can do anything you put your mind to.’ She couldn’t help me financially, so she laundered and ironed my uniforms when I got into the school.” I teared up when he shared the story. The tale spoke volumes about the immeasurable value of parents who give currency to their children’s aspirations and to believing in one’s self. Bill’s mother did that and he credits her for it.

Through drive, hard work and resourcefulness plus belief in doing the right thing Bill was a regional manager at H. Salt Fish and Chips at 23, became my district manager at KFC in Columbus, Ohio in 1976, left KFC to become the regional manager of Pizza Hut on the West Coast, then a Pizzeria Uno franchisee, a company I ran, and finally a Hardee’s franchise in Austin all before he turned 40.

Bill is the 6'2" youngster behind me. Colonel Sanders presides.

And speaking of resourcefulness, Bill was the only person I ever worked with that always delivered on his commitments. He was the only restaurant operator I knew in forty years who actually opened a restaurant on time and under budget. That was his Pizzeria Uno in Overland Park, Kansas. If I recall correctly, he remodeled the full service, full bar restaurant in sixty days. It was breathtaking.

According to Bill, he called me at my Connecticut office when he got the Pizza Hut offer. He told me that he wanted to discuss something with me and I said, “Come on up.” When we met in Greenwich, he told me about the offer and recalls that I replied, “That’s a tremendous deal. You have to take it!” I have zero recollection of saying that but have to say I didn’t know I was so selfless. I’m wicked proud of myself as we say in Boston. I wanted to lose Bill in my region like I wanted a root canal. He was one of the best DMs in the country. In 1977 Jim Willey, the president of KFC called to tell me about the Top Ten store managers, area managers and district managers in our 800-unit chain and that my region had dominated the awards. He told me that Bill would also have been a Top Ten district manager but since he was leaving for Pizza Hut he’d name a district manager from another region to “give somebody else a chance.” I thought it was bogus at the time. Still do.

Bill moved to Austin thirty years ago, thus proving that not only was he motivated, organized and a great leader but he sure knew the town to pick. Austin has been the fastest growing city in the country for something like 20 years and boasts soaring real estate prices to prove it. It’s not unusual for a house double in value in five years. Taos, shall we say, hasn’t done that.

Then to compound the felony Bill went into the real estate business just as Austin took off like a rocket ship. I’d hate the lucky son of a bitch if I didn’t love him so much.

Throughout the birthday shindig Bill introduced me to his family and friends as his long-time friend and mentor. It's gratifying and humbling at the same time. I was proud to be the only guy from the old days in attendance.

I had an unbelievably good time with Bill and his inner circle in Austin. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard or ate so much great barbecue. The epic BBQ episode and the heartburn that followed deserves an entire blog post to do it justice.

Brisket from Terry Black's BBQ in Austin. The original is in Lockhart, Texas, the BBQ capitol of the Lone Star State. My son Garrett says it's the best brisket in the world. Lord, it was good.

Mesquite smoked chicken from the Southside Market in Bastrop, Texas.

At mid-afternoon on Saturday, the day of his birthday celebration Bill, his affable brother Rick and I picked up the BBQ. And Bill being a BBQ connoisseur of the highest order had ordered from two stellar establishments in order to aggregate the best possible spread. There was the Southside Diner in suburban Bastrop for its ridiculous sausage and smoked chicken and Terry Black’s in Downtown Austin, for tender, juicy brisket and let’s add some ribs while we’re at it.

The festivities were attended by about 35 friendly folks including many who met Bill through real estate dealings and most of whom had a story to tell about the way he facilitated a deal or guided them through one that was iffy. In typical Bill fashion he told them, “Let me take care of it.” And he did exactly that.

The proposal

The answer is yes.

His party was a multi-generational affair with elders and grandbabies. The whole shebang was a blast. But the highlight happened after the cutting of the “big ass cake” from Central Market. After Bill had blown out the single candle (seems like cheating), he thanked everybody in attendance, gave me a special nod because I am after all his mentor and added, “I have one question.” Then he got on one knee and asked Tracy to marry him. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

We agreed that we had to see each other more often and have designs on a fall visit to Marfa. Bill, Tracy, Peggy and Steve. That'll be one hell of a party.


Anonymous said...

What a wonderful tribute!

Blacks Crossing said...

Absolutely terrific blog about your long-time friendship with Bill, and a great way to help him continue what must have been one heck of a celebration in Austin. Well done to you both for keeping the working relationship and friendship for 45 years. Bill and Tracy, Peggy and Steve in Marfa during the fall is a MUST! Thanks for bringing all this love to your writing, Steve!