By KAY MATTHEWS
Taos lost the “closest thing to a native son a gringo can be” yesterday. My friend Bill Whaley died of a heart attack while skiing at the Taos Ski Valley with his young granddaughter. If I weren’t in such shock and grief I’d have to acknowledge that this was the way he would have wanted to go, the inveterate ski bum that he was at heart.
This is what family member Paloma Villalobos posted on Facebook:
“This morning while Bill was enjoying skiing with his granddaughter, Lily, he suffered a heart attack and made his spiritual journey to the next adventure of life. He was doing what he loved most and we are thankful for that grace.
We were informed of his passing around 5 this evening, nothing could have prepared us for this news, and we are in utter shock.
I ask that you please keep my mom Deb, his son Fitz, and his granddaughter Lily in your prayers over the next few days.
Bill made such an impact on this community and many people in it. He was an intelligent and dutiful man, a writer, teacher, husband, father, step-father, grandfather, brother, uncle and friend. His presence will be missed, but he will live on in all of us.
Thank you Bill for all you did for those around you and the Taos community.
Rest easy Pesky Insect.”
Pesky Insect, aka Horse Fly, was Bill’s monthly critique of politics, art, and culture that he published from September 1999 to September 2009 and where I first met him, recruited to write articles on water issues. After Horse Fly’s demise he went online with Taos Friction, which took the Taos politicos to task on an almost daily basis, parsing Horse Fly friend Flavio’s estimation of the town: “Taos is a great place to visit but you wouldn’t want to live here.”
But Bill did live in Taos for many years and became its notorious gringo. Arriving in the 1960s as a member of the National Guard to avoid Vietnam, he gravitated to the ski slopes of Taos, forging a contentious relationship with owner Ernie Blake. He moved on to became a mostly failed entrepreneur whose ventures included the Plaza Theater, Plaza Theater Bar, Cortez Theater, Old Martinez Hall, the Taos Community Auditorium, and KVNM-FM radio, the precursor of KTAO. While he often lost his shirt and his sanity during those years of terror, he gave the Taos community downtown movies ranging from Fellini’s 8 ½ to Blazing Saddles, lots of memorable bar experiences, an Earl “Fatha” Hines concert, and a rousing production of West Side Story.
All of this is documented in his book, Gringo Lessons: Twenty Years of Terror in Taos, about which our mutual friend John Nichols had this to say in his review in Taos Friction (and that I reposted in La Jicarita):
“This wonderful autobiography is as honest as the day is long, no holds barred, no punches pulled. It’s beautifully written, highly entertaining, truly wild and wonderful even as it also may make you cringe on every other page. This pilgrim’s progress is definitely not a stroll through a summer meadow. Whaley might have done better not to have gone AWOL from the National Guard, but to have punched his ticket to Vietnam instead.”
But Bill had another life plan ahead. He left Taos in 1987 to resume a college career in his home state of Nevada. Ten years later he was back, as an ABD (all but dissertation). Thus ensued the journalism years with Horse Fly and Taos Friction. He published all my articles about the impending water battles over the Taos Pueblo (Abeyta) water adjudication, and when I served as the chair of the Taos County Public Welfare Advisory Committee, he was right there to back up my attempt to get the commission to protest water transfers that were not in best interest of the citizens of Taos County, always in language that was uniquely Bill’s: “But, when you measure the risk of litigation against the potential dollars, some $130 million, which will begin flowing into the mouths of thirsty Taosenos from the federal mammary glands, well, what can you do.”
His love of language also flowered in a late-blooming academic career as a professor of English and philosophy at UNM-Taos. He also taught independent classes on Taos history, politics, and culture, a man of all seasons.
During the long, difficult 2020 year of the pandemic he continued to teach and published many a screed about the national political scene. Over the past few weeks he became especially outraged, with posts like “The Fascists are planning a Second Coup in Plain Sight” and “In Real Time: the Revolution Continues.”
For the past several years Bill skied with his granddaughter Lily up in the Valley. Initially, he was thrilled that he could beat her coming down Al’s Run. As she grew up, though, and her skills improved, that became more difficult and when he told me she finally beat him, it was with both chagrin and pride. I also ski with my grandkids, but they’re younger and I’m much less an accomplished skier than Bill was. I’m not going to be doing Al’s Run with them. I don’t know if that’s where he died, but anywhere on the mountain is a fitting end, I guess, although I wish his granddaughter hadn’t been there to witness this traumatic event. And I wish he was still here.
Addendum: Bill and I attended too many memorials for our Taos friends and colleagues over the last few years: Butchie Denver in 2012, Ron Gardiner in 2016, and Gene Sanchez in 2019. I don’t know how the family will be able to memorialize Bill with Corona-19 still extant, but we will be with you in spirit if not in person.