Evanston RoundTable, June 22, 2022
“The world has gone mad today, and good’s bad today, and black’s white today, and day’s night today.” – Cole Porter
Bill. Billy. Der Bingle, our father affectionately called him. William. Named after our grandfather, William Jay Jacobson. Billy was William Jay Jacobson II, with Roman numerals, like an Egyptian pharaoh or some English king.
I remember Bill.
I remember as a kid growing up in New Rochelle, N.Y., being terrorized by Giggy, the local bully. When Bill, who was five years older than me, found out he marched me over to Giggy’s house determined to whale the tar out of him if he didn’t desist. Instead of Giggy, his big brother, Donny, answered the door. As I recall Donny looked a lot like Biff in Back to the Future, beefy and thuggish. No matter: Bill threatened to whale the tar out of him if his kid brother didn’t desist.
Nevertheless, this kind of fraternal warmth and protectiveness was rare. Most of the time it was me whom Bill terrorized, at least until the differences in our ages no longer mattered.
He was, as they say, one in a million, kind of the family wonder. He was addicted to lists. The joke was that once, midway through a shower, he stepped out so he could cross off “take shower” from his to-do list.
He was finicky, well-groomed and sophisticated. He hung out with some of the more colorful and eccentric characters in high school. It made sense: they were the most interesting, creative and funny kids there.
Our father and Bill had an often-stormy relationship, maybe because they were so different. Dad loved sports, played golf every weekend and was a semi-pro baseball player as a young man. Bill hated sports and disdained famous athletes.
Dad adored the Big Band era of the 1930s and ’40s. Bill preferred music of the 1920s, especially the show tunes and dance numbers. He was a devotee of Noel Coward and Cole Porter. (His daughter’s first spoken word, after being carefully coached, was “Porter.”) When Bill heard the famous songwriter was being treated for a serious illness at a Manhattan hospital he even contrived to pay him a visit. He and his wife Bobbie later made a pilgrimage to Porter’s gravesite in Peru, Indiana.
Without telling anyone Bill bought a 1931 Studebaker for around a hundred bucks. Dad made him return it, claiming insurance would be too expensive and getting parts too difficult. But he admired Bill’s initiative.
One summer in the 1950s Bill and I were dispatched to an eight-week camp in Vermont. Being anything but the rah-rah camping type, Bill announced after a few weeks he was done. He called home and demanded to be repatriated. After a good deal of palaver our parents reluctantly acquiesced. I was in the office when Bill made the call and got on the line and begged to come home too. No way, I was told. One of us returning home was enough. Plus – I actually liked camp, I just didn’t want to be left out of the drama.
Bill assured me, as a kid, that he had a genius IQ. I was skeptical but to prove it he agreed to a debate and let me set the terms. Fine, I said. Resolved: smoking is bad. I’ll take the affirmative. Fine, he said, you start.
Smoking kills people, I argued, it fouls the atmosphere (which we knew from first-hand experience: both our parents were heavy smokers), and creates unsightly litter along sidewalks and streets. Not very compelling, except for the killing part, but I thought I had him.
Not so, he retorted. Where’s the evidence cigarettes kill people (this was years before the 1964 Surgeon General’s report)? And if you ban cigarettes, what about the millions of people in the industry – tobacco growers, factory workers, sales people and stores where they’re sold? It would cripple our exports and put a huge hole in our economy.
OK, I thought. He is a genius.
That may have been an exaggeration, but without doubt he was smart. Also good-looking, fastidious and an excellent dresser. Girls thought he was smooth, a good talker and very attentive. For a while he dated the daughter of a famous Broadway producer, and was mortified one night when he and the young lady were caught in partial déshabillé by her parents and their friends when they came home early from dinner. “Oh, don’t bother with them,” laughed the famous producer. “That’s just Billy being Billy.”
In later years, after we outgrew our youthful rivalry and contentiousness, we became very close. We were alike in many ways, in our devotion to our adored older brother, love of travel and adventure, surprising sentimentality and warped sense of humor. We shared also the same impatience, outbursts of anger and dislike of pretense “That’s BS,” he would say. We were “twins born 64 months apart,” I would say. We were vastly different and much alike, two halves of a weird fraternal whole.
I understood the turmoil of his childhood and admired his resilience and fortitude as well as his generosity and devotion to family. He helped me get a career-making job at Allstate, where he had worked in communications for more than three decades.
When I arrived there a few years after his retirement, people couldn’t wait to tell me “Billy stories.” He would keep a well-worn copy of the Physicians’ Desk Reference so in his spare time he could memorize prescription drugs and make recommendations.
He compared notes with one colleague about famous and expensive watches. With another he bonded over fine pens and shaving implements. He made it a point to color-coordinate his tie, pocket hanky and watch band. One colleague told me he presented her with a 30-page skincare guide when she started. He was known for getting to work by 7 and leaving at 3. Coffee breaks were always at 10 and 2. On the dot.
Nowadays we might call this behavior OCD, but then it was just “Billy being Billy.”
One colleague remembered him as “one of the most interesting men I ever met.” “He was quite a character and always fun to be with,” agreed another. A third said, “Just thinking about him makes me smile. He was lucky to have so many people who loved him… but you get what you give, right?”
He was admired for his logic and attention to detail. He was a good writer and talker. The head of the department relied on him for honest feedback and straight talk, much-valued qualities.
I visited him at his Northbrook office several times over the years, long before I started working there. He always wore a crisp white shirt and dark tie and arranged his jacket neatly over the back of his chair. His desk was immaculate except for the carefully stacked papers on one side and an ashtray with a lighted cigarette on the other. It was the corporate look. He seemed happy with and proud of it.
Nevertheless he retired at the first opportunity and – strangely, we thought, for such an urban sophisticate – moved with Bobbie to a small house in remote south central Wisconsin. He loved the pastoral setting, the bucolic lakes and forests. We’d go for long walks and he’d point out the native birds and plants. He said it fed his soul.
The other thing that fed his soul was the piano. He took it up after he retired and essentially taught himself to play. This is incredibly difficult, starting so late. But he was passionately determined to learn the ’20s and ‘30s show tunes he loved. He and Bobbie traveled the world on cruises, and inevitably Bill would commandeer the ship’s piano and perform his favorite tunes for whoever was around.
“Wherever we traveled, Bill instantly made lifelong friends,” said Bobbie. “When we moved back to Northbrook from Wisconsin, again he made many new friends. But he was also happy being alone. He frequently said, ‘I’m fine, because I’m self-contained.’”
Bill liked to say he was a composite of our parents’ worst traits – our mother’s laziness and our father’s temper. But if so, it was only half the story. He had their best traits too: Mom’s sensitivity, generosity and sense of humor and Dad’s industry, friendliness and intelligence.
He was a rare and precious mix.
Bill passed away last week at 81 after a long illness. When informed a few months ago that he probably had only a short time to live, his response was classic: “That’s BS!”
I was with his extraordinary family much of the time near the end. His granddaughter, Haley, came up on weekends from Chicago, where she lived. His grandson, Sebastian, quit his job in Milwaukee and moved in with “Grampy” to be his full-time caretaker. His daughter Meredith and of course Bobbie were there for him throughout. It was a privilege to be with them his last days – and all the happy days before that.
I remember – shall never forget – Bill.