Remembering Bill

By Tom Attig

On Thursday, May 24, 2012, my dear and life-long friend, Bill Rathje was found by his housekeeper dead in bed in his Tucson home, where he lived by himself. Without going into how disconnected from others he was at the end (I may have been the last person to speak with him the day before), the worst of my grief is knowing that a such a wonderful man died a very lonely death (via pulmonary embolism). Reaching through sorrow, I recall what a truly amazing person and great friend to me he was. Here's only the beginning of why it was, and still is, a privilege to know and love Bill:

Bill and I were friends for over sixty years. Born three days apart in July of 1945 and living but two blocks apart in Wheaton, Illinois, we met at age four while playing in the neighborhood. We attended the same schools, becoming best friends in high school. Bill never ceased, nor ceases, to amaze and delight me.

Bill's artistic skills and creativity were dazzling. He could draw most anything. He led his grade school class in painting Halloween scenes on local storefront windows, often winning the town-wide contest. He produced incredible oils, but dropped painting at fourteen. I watched him craft a stunning mosaic of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, patiently attending to the smallest details of color and shape, all the while maintaining focus on a vision of the whole. He drew editorial cartoons for the U. of Arizona student paper through his undergraduate years. For years he drew annual cartoon Christmas cards, including one in tough times depicting a feast with Santa seated at the table with head bowed in prayer before a roast beast with a decidedly red nose on a platter. Later, he turned to photography, especially nature images, even contributing some photos to national publications. His collection of twelve cloud photos depicting the Chinese Zodiac, now hangs in a Bay Area restaurant. He played cornet in bands through high school. As a teen, he studied guitar and began writing songs. In college, he composed over four hundred songs, performing them at Tucson coffee houses.

Bill had a voracious appetite for knowledge and understanding. After completing a speed-reading course, the feeding frenzy began. His performance in our senior year "Background Reading" course exceeded everyone's expectations as Bill submitted on the seventy-five titles he read in fifteen weeks. When we returned from our first university year, I had a box of books while Bill's literally filled a large steamer trunk.

Bill's passion for archaeology was insatiable. Elsewhere on this web site (under Others' Stories), Bill tells of finding an odd piece of copper in his front yard at age five, digging for more, inviting friends to join him (I likely among them), his mother encouraging his curiosity, and his grandmother giving him a picture book that he claims is "still the best ever introduction to the field." His home filled with National Geographic, Horizon, and Smithsonian magazines, Bill especially delighted in telling me of the incredible adventures of Heinrich Schliemann and other early archaeologists, heroes for exploits that made Indiana Jones look like a piker. Clearly he was hooked, and studying archaeology at the U. of A. was no surprise. I got a real understanding of what so excited Bill's enthusiasm when I visited him in the spring term of 1966 and we attended lectures by the great L.S.B. Leakey.

I recall a late-night conversation with Bill the summer before we headed on our separate ways to graduate school. After sharing some hesitations of my own about philosophers, I asked him if he knew enough archaeologists personally to know he wanted to spend much of his life in their company and what he might do if he met arrogance, pettiness, or political nastiness among them. He knew enough, he said, to sift the wheat from the chaff. And he so wanted to infect the wider world with his enthusiasm for archaeology. And so it turned out that he and I were even then kindred spirits in our aspirations to apply what we knew and loved.

I marveled as Bill's knowledge, insight, imagination, adventurous spirit, and perseverance in the face of skeptics brought him great professional success. His first Harvard graduate school paper offered new perspective on the dissipation of Mayan civilization, using sophisticated computer data analysis of trade and migration patterns. Amazingly, after sharing the piece with colleagues, his professor returned it and said, "consider your dissertation done!" Those ideas and Bill's subsequent work in Cozumel have influenced the study of other civilizations, and are still taken very seriously.

Bill is best known for his innovative explorations of contemporary trash and landfills using archaeological techniques and research methods: The Garbage Project. These accomplishments are best described in the tribute published by the U. of Arizona. What a legacy for the field and the world! I was, of course, proud watching Bill's career soar.

While a Visiting Scholar at Stanford, Bill conducted a series of interviews with, "the world's greatest living archaeologists." Those interviews have been transcribed and will be published in January in a collection (co-edited with Michael Shanks and Christopher Witmore) entitled Archaeology in the Making: Conversations through a Discipline. Bill believed the collection to be one of his most important contributions.

Bill missed more days of high school than he attended because of illness (including two bouts of double pneumonia). I visited him often through those years on Sunday afternoons. His spirit was indomitable. Conversation ranged widely as I did my best to keep him up-to-date on happenings at school, he showed or sang to me his latest creations, we played chess (poor players evenly matched), and we laughed as he recounted nearly verbatim the shows his parents had taken him to featuring emerging comics of the day. As graduation approached, his doctors told him that his respiratory difficulties could kill him unless he chose a university in hot, dry climate.

Tucson and the U. of Arizona were just what he needed, and how wonderful it was to watch Bill rise to his full potential when healthy, becoming like a cowboy given free rein to roam wherever his spirit led him. (I will never forget him riding high in his Jeep with the roll-bar and the "Howdy-Hi Buckaroos" greeting on his answering machine.) He poured his heart and considerable energy into all that the new context provided. He typically needed only four hours sleep, and the extra time made possible astonishing productivity. He graduated a runner-up for a Rhodes Scholarship. Continuing good health sustained him throughout his career. Unknown to me until within the last year, he was an alcoholic. Others witnessed more of this and its consequences than I. In his last years, he developed severe circulatory and clotting problems that eventually killed him.

The first time Bill and I ever worked together in a sustained way was as co-editors (with Sherry Koch) of our high school yearbook. His creativity and the humor and mischief between us, made it a yearbook like none other, featuring, for example, photos of favorite teachers puzzling over "2 + 2 = 4" on the blackboard (math), floating a rubber duck in a wave tank (physics), or writing in pig-Latin on the board (Language). Fellow students still cherish that book to this day.

For many years, Bill and I longed to work together again, but distance and time constraints held us back. Finally, when we were both semi-retired and in the Bay Area, we joined forces again. While I was preparing to write a short book about how we breathe into life, loss takes our breath away, and we catch our breath in grief, colleagues urged that I should find someone who could temper my sometimes difficult messages by placing my reflections in a beautiful setting. In late summer 2006 I called Bill, the person I knew with the finest aesthetic sensibility, to see if he might want to help me. He didn't hesitate a minute but wanted to see more. I told him I'd send him one-third of the text in each of the next three months.

When two months passed without my writing as I had hoped, I emailed Bill a single-sentence-per-topic outline for the three parts of the book "just to prove I had not fallen off the face of the earth." The next day, his email response began, "You may not have fallen off the face of the earth, but I almost did." He had recently wakened on a day he was to fly but was slowed by chest pain. When he arrived at the Stanford Emergency Room they took him immediately for examination, and the attending physician told him, "People with what you have usually arrive on a slab, not on their own two feet." They had found a pulmonary embolism about the size of his Bill's fist. His health remained precarious from then on.

I called Bill on a Friday and urged him to forget my project and take care of himself. But in his bedroom, he had already begun looking through thousands of photos looking for matches for my topics. He insisted that it was therapeutic for him, and I could not dissuade him. Unbelievably, Bill called the following Monday and insisted I come to meet for lunch on Tuesday, when he would show me a PowerPoint I could use that Thursday! Of course I went. His acute sensibilities and instant attunement to my subject matter enabled him to uncannily match photos with all of the topics on my outline! The beauty of his photos, his vibrant spirit, and his incredible generosity overwhelmed me. And that is how Bill's photographs came to be featured throughout Catching Your Breath in Grief ...and grace will lead you home. I am so gratified to hold that enduring gift and to share his work and this story with others.

Not only was Bill bright and inquisitive, creative, aesthetically gifted, multi-talented, passionate, capable, and determined, as the above only begins to attest. But in friendship I came to know him as kind, gentle, loving, sweet, sensitive, attentive, patient, and generous. I hoped the world would be good to and appreciate him for these virtues as well as his talents and accomplishments. And I believe it did.