“I think I’ve lived too long.”
That was one of the last statements William R. Hilts (aka Bill, Sr, Big Bill, Old Bear, Dad, and Papa) made as he shared time with son, Rick, and grandson, Christian, on Dec. 11.
The last couple of months were not good to him as his health (and memory) was failing.
He was a shell of what he once was, and it was sad to see. We didn’t want to remember him like that. The next day he was gone from this earth, moving on to a much better place – reunited with his wife, Sylvia (Mom and Grammy), who passed away in 2018.
Since his death, less than a week short of his 91st birthday, our life has been a whirlwind. We didn’t have any time to think and put things into perspective.
Hundreds upon hundreds of people reaching out to extend condolences from so many different people, groups, and organizations he was involved with. He wasn’t just a member in many cases, he was a person who truly made a difference. He was a friend and mentor.
His life was truly amazing. He lived it on his terms, with a passion for the outdoors and people. He loved spending time with family and friends, but meeting new people was something he treasured.
Thanks to a 4-year stint in the U.S. Navy, he was able to visit over 30 countries as he traveled the world on the destroyer USS Glennon (and two months on Destroyer Escort USS Crow). He was proud of that service.
When he was discharged in 1954, he ended up working for the New York Power Authority as an administrative supervisor for over 33 years. He convinced the upper echelon of NYPA to be more involved with sportsmen/conservation/environmental matters and it became an important part of his job at the Niagara Power Project and throughout the agency’s power facilities.
He started his writing “career” as a freelancer with the Niagara Falls Gazette on a dare from some friends. It didn’t take him long to develop an extensive following, and his next leap was taking over outdoor writing duties with the Buffalo Courier Express.
He started out writing two to three times a week, and it eventually expanded to four days. Remember, he was also working full time.
Big Bill (I was Little Bill) became involved with many different writer organizations early on. He joined the Outdoor Writers Association of America and became very active, serving as an officer, board member, president, and chairman of the board through the years.
At one point, he had attended 40 straight national conferences, from California to Maine and Mexico to Saskatchewan.
My first conference (I was just 10-years old) was in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. We camped across the country with my mother, Sylvia, and brother, Rick (who was 7 years old at the time), in our 15-foot Serro Scotty travel trailer.
After the conference, we were invited to stay at the 7-W Dude Ranch for a week, horseback riding through the Rocky Mountains. We even camped out among the stars at an elevation of over 7,000 feet. The food never tasted so good. I have never seen so many stars in the sky.
I joined OWAA myself in 1983 and attended the conference in Spokane, Washington. I was in awe as I met the likes of Homer Circle, Grits Gresham, Wally Taber, and Pat McManus to name but a few. Dad was proud to have me as part of the group. It led to many more adventures through the decades.
Because of his contacts with OWAA, he thought it was important to form a New York State writers’ group. As he reached out to potential members, he heard Hans Paller of Massena was doing the same thing.
One phone call cemented the deal for each other. From there, it was history – the New York State Outdoor Writers Association was formed in 1967. It continues to this day, 55 years later. I joined in 1981 and continue to be a part of this “family.”
He also belonged to other writer groups such as the Outdoor Writers of Canada, the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers, and the New England Outdoor Writers Association as he continued to expand his legion of friends. It was always amazing to me the number of people that he knew and the stories he could tell.
He continued to expand his outdoor writing to publications like Great Lakes Fisherman, Fur-Fish-Game, the New York State Conservation Council Comments, Fins and Feathers, North American Bear Journal, and Lake Ontario Outdoors.
He extended his media involvement into television with “Outdoor World” (a show with longtime friend, John Long, Sr.), as well as several radio shows in the Buffalo/Niagara Falls market. And, yes, he was still working a full-time job.
He belonged to numerous sportsmen’s groups and causes. One love of his was bears. In fact, he became involved with the North American Bear Foundation and served as editor of the group’s quarterly magazine, the North American Bear Journal.
From visiting black bears in the Adirondacks at the dumps in the early days of family camping at Lewey Lake in our Scotty travel trailer, to flying around in a helicopter with Alaskan wildlife biologists in charge of Kodiak bear research, his license plate said it all: “Old Bear.” He was more like a Teddy bear.
For over 35 years, he was an important cog in the conservation/sportsman machine with the NY State Conservation Council, a huge force in the state when it came to rule making, as well as shaping sportsman/conservation issues across the state.
He represented New York for over 35 years as the delegate to the National Wildlife Federation and the Wildlife Management Institute. It all started with local involvement with the Niagara County Federation of Conservation Clubs, and it went as high as serving on the Conservation Fund Advisory Board for NYSCC. There were so many groups, so little time.
If there was an outdoor-related cause he believed in, he would become a supporter. If it was still in the developmental stages, he would help lead the charge.
One such cause was the use of crossbows in New York. He was the founding member and president of the New York State Crossbow Hunters Association to help create a better awareness for crossbows as a hunting tool in the state.
He would give talks and demonstrations around the state, many times with the help of family and friends (yes, I was part of the charge with my brothers Rick and Dave), to help promote crossbows.
He was often criticized by some of the diehard archery groups, calling him names. The funny thing was, he was also at the forefront of the archery movement with compound bows when they were new and controversial.
If he believed in it, he would fight for it.
I could go on and on about the life he lived and the adventures he would be involved with.
That is the way we will choose to remember Big Bill. With a big smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye.
When the funeral concluded with a military burial honor, the playing of Taps sent chills down my spine.
He wouldn’t be around to have lunch or dinner with anymore. He wouldn’t be there for a trip to the Southern Tier for hunting or a nearby writer conference or safari. He won’t physically be involved on the next fishing excursion.
However, he will be there in spirit for it all. Rest in peace, Big Bill. You did it your way.