Bill Frank Jr. died about two years ago. Our community and state lost a great person, and I lost my best friend. After two years I’m feeling ready to share a few thoughts about Billy.
I may not tell you anything you haven’t read before. After all, over 6,000 people attended his funeral with politicians and tribal leaders from near and far speaking about what Billy meant to them and the nation. And The Olympian published a nice article by John Dodge.
And since his death there have been more honors and news articles — including awarding him the “Presidential Medal of Freedom” and renaming Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge in his honor.
But what was Billy really like?
First and above all, he was a warm and loving person. He had an infectious smile that let you know that you were special, that he was glad to meet you, that he had time for you, personally. This warmth gathered folks to him and his family. We all felt like a great extended family, drawn in by and held together by him.
No one was immune to the attraction of that smile. From cynical Washington, D.C., politicians to news reporters to regular folks listening to a talk, they all felt his genuine warmth and wisdom. And, as a result, they were ready to listen as he spoke about the salmon and the treaty rights of Pacific Northwest Indians.
And Billy was a wise person. With all that’s been written about Billy, everyone likely knows that he did not stay in school past the eighth grade. But he was wise in ways one cannot learn in school. He was able to use his personal abilities to gather talented people around him; he knew people and knew how to motivate us to succeed.
Also, he knew the only way overcome the entrenched forces that were destroying the salmon little by little was to get people involved. We all know the right things to do, he often said; the difficult thing is to actually do it.
One more thing about Billy’s wisdom. He was a strategist, able to think about long-term goals and to work on small actions to move toward those goals. And he was patient enough to let the results of this approach play out over many years.
Also, Billy was a generous person. He would give generously of his time and his money, often without being asked. He took people in sometimes; I was one of them. It was Thanksgiving of 1978; I had gotten divorced the year before and my children were with their mom. Out of the blue, Billy said, “Walters, you’re spending Thanksgiving with us.” And a day later, there I was in a warm home at Franks Landing with Billy and his wife Norma, made welcome as if I had lived my whole life there.
I’d like to share another little story about generosity. Billy’s March 9th birthday in those days was not the big celebration it evolved into. One year there was a small family gathering and I wanted to give Billy a birthday gift. I chose a silver and turquoise ring.
Several weeks later I noticed that ring was being worn by a younger relative at Franks Landing. At first I didn’t understand, but later I learned that this man treasured that gift from Billy, wore it often and, after an untimely death, was buried with it. By generously passing along my small gift to another, Billy added meaning to it beyond measure.
Finally, I want to say that Billy was a Nisqually Indian. In him was reflected the culture and values of the entire Nisqually community — generosity, wisdom, and an open and loving approach to life and family.
I imagine that in the next few years there will be a statue of Billy created. Here’s my vision of what that statue should be: Billy standing with a huge smile on his face and with his arms wide, ready to sweep you in to his vision of a world where everyone had a part. A world where you, personally, could make a difference.
George Walter is the Nisqually Indian Tribe’s environmental program manager, and is a member of The Olympian’s 2015 Board of Contributors. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org