This is an unusually long and personal post. I normally don’t include much about my life outside of writing, but I recently lost a very dear friend, and I felt compelled to put some thoughts together, not only to honor his memory, but also to clarify my own jumbled thinking at this difficult time.
When I started out, I wanted to write a long, hopefully eloquent, essay describing my relationship with Bill and how much his friendship meant to me. But for some reason, my memories came out in little bursts, like self-contained snapshots that were not particularly connected. Maybe that’s the nature of grief and memory. In any case, here’s my tribute to my friend, Bill Breeden.
Bill Never Met A Stranger
I met Bill in 1978. He was a freshman at Western Illinois University and he lived in Henninger Hall next door to my good friends Ken and Keith. I didn’t attend WIU at that time, but when I’d visit Ken and Keith, I’d also hang out with Bill. We quickly became friends.
The thing about Bill is that he never met a stranger. He befriended everyone he met. During his sophomore year at WIU, Bill’s roommate was a guy named Rhett. Bill didn’t know him. The school paired them randomly to room together.
Rhett was an odd guy. He came from a wealthy family and was older than the rest of us by five or six years. Where he had been before he landed at Western was a bit of a mystery. It seemed to involve heavy drug use and perhaps some jail time. It really wasn’t clear. Even though Rhett was very different from us, Bill always made sure that he was invited to hang out with us. Rhett and Bill had very little in common, but that didn’t stop them from becoming friends. That was just Bill’s way.
Sleeping with a Laundry Basket
My first year at WIU, Bill and I lived on the same floor in Henninger Hall (That was the year Rhett was Bill’s roommate). A couple of years later, Bill, Ken, Keith, our friend Brett, and I lived together in a house on East Murray Street in Macomb. What a year that was. A couple of years after that, Bill and I were both in grad school and we shared an apartment together. With the exception of my family, I lived with Bill more than any other person.
Bill was a great guy, but he wasn’t always the most organized or tidy guy. His room in our house on East Murray was a disaster. There was stuff scattered everywhere. You couldn’t even see the floor because of the clothes, books, papers, and food wrappers lying around.
One time after doing laundry (which was a rarity), Bill threw his clothes into a laundry basket and put the basket on his bed. He pulled clothes out of the basket as needed, and at night, he somehow contorted his body in his tiny, single bed so he could sleep around the basket. After several days, Keith and I noticed that the basket hadn’t moved from his bed, so we kept an eye on it. The laundry basket stayed in place for weeks before Bill ran out of clothes and the process started all over again.
Bill and “Stoney” Al
Things weren’t always easy for Bill. As far as I know, Bill’s father was never much of a presence in his life, and his mom struggled to provide for the family. When Bill was in high school, his mom moved the family to Galesburg from their home in Momence, a small town near Kankakee, IL. Things didn’t work out as planned in Galesburg, and Bill’s mom decided to return to Momence. But Bill had become established in Galesburg, and their local minister volunteered to let Bill stay with his family so Bill could finish high school.
Also living with the minister was a guy by the name of Alan Bryan. I seem to remember that Al had been adopted by the minister and his family, but I’m not sure. Al and Bill were the same age, and they became like brothers. They graduated together from high school, then went off to WIU together where they were roommates their freshman year.
Al was the most straight-laced guy we knew. He didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, and didn’t do drugs, so naturally, we called him “Stoney” Al. I guess we thought the irony made us seem clever. After that first year at WIU, Bill and Al went their separate ways. Al eventually joined the Marines (Correction: Al was in the Air Force) and served his country for several years. In fact, he still works as a civilian at the Pentagon. But despite their different paths in life, Al and Bill remained close. That shouldn’t be surprising. That’s the kind of guy Bill was.
A Passion and A Purpose
Bill loved his job as a teacher at Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School in Illinois. I knew he liked his job, and I knew his students and co-workers were very fond of him. But what surprised me after Bill’s heart attack and passing was how many lives he touched, and the depth of the love and respect others felt for him.
After Bill’s heart attack, both current and former students posted on Facebook talking about how much Bill meant to them. They talked about his willingness to listen, his sage advice, his corny jokes, and how he had changed their lives. Fellow teachers wrote about their appreciation for Bill, how he had helped them, supported them, and mentored them.
After Bill had his heart attack, but before he died, one of his students wrote: “Finding out my all-time favorite teacher isn’t in a good place right now is super heartbreaking. I met Mr. Breeden when I was just a sophomore, from that day on my life changed forever. Mr. Breeden believed in me when I didn’t even believe in myself, if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t have even graduated high school. I remember always looking forward to seeing him every single day, he could brighten up anyone’s day. He’s such a funny person with such a big heart and lots of love to give. I remember him always helping me in the mornings with my math work. He gave such great insightful advice. I could literally talk to him about any and everything. I’m so grateful to have the privilege to even know him.”
Another of Bill’s students said: “Getting off of work to hear that the best teacher I’ve ever [had] has passed away is the most heartbreaking thing ever. Bill Breeden, you were what other teachers should strive to be. You gave me confidence in school, which is something I never thought I would have and you constantly made everyone around you smile and laugh. I’m so lucky to have had you as a teacher. You’re greatness will be missed.”
And yet another student wrote: “RIP to someone who left [too] soon and one of the best teachers I ever had. [T]hank you for being someone I could look up to and go to if I needed help with something or just to talk.”
One of Bill’s fellow teachers wrote: “Today was my first day back to school without working with Bill Breeden. To say it was hard walking in where he should have been is an understatement…He was a great inspiration to many, fun to be around, an amazing teacher, and just an all around great guy! I feel honored to say I knew him and worked with him…He will be greatly missed.”
Another one wrote: “Bill was one of a kind! He was a good friend and mentor. As I was finishing up my master’s degree and would often sub in special ed, he would request me as his sub. The irony is, Bill knew math was my worst subject and I was terrified of teaching his classes. He would go the extra mile and make me an answer key, work out all the problems for me, so that I and the students would be successful. He told me, ‘Ange, it’s ok to not know all of this, you know the kids, do your best and you’ll be fine.’ Knowing Bill had your back was a true blessing. He was loved by many, touched the hearts of all who knew him and will be missed.”
And a teacher shared this story that captured Bill’s personality beautifully: “One of my favorite Bill Breeden memories was when I was his assistant basketball coach back in 2007-2008. He put me in charge of calling an out of bounds play after a timeout. I told the girls what to do, then sent them on the floor. After it was too late, I noticed we had 6 girls on the court. I realized it, Bill realized it, but the ref did not. We passed the ball in bounds, ran the play, scored, then he quickly called a timeout before anyone knew what happened. He just looked at me and shook his head and said “Really, Gamble???” while trying not to laugh. It was the last out of bounds play I called that season, but it was the start of years of ridicule.”
The amazing thing to me is these are just a few of the many posts people have made for Bill. The one common thread in all of them is that Bill was kind, he cared, he listened, he supported. When you’ve known someone a long time, you can forget what makes them special. Thank you to Bill’s students and co-workers for reminding me of things about Bill that I’ve known for a long time, but maybe took for granted.
An Ugly Sport Coat and a Little Italian Porn Music
One thing that I loved and appreciated about Bill was his eclectic taste in music and fashion. His taste in fashion was, quite honestly, odd, and his taste in music was constantly changing.
Bill loved strange looking sport coats, although I suspect he didn’t view them as all that strange. Almost anything unusual was to his liking, the louder and more garish, the better.
A few years ago he picked up a kitschy (His principle called it “hideous.”) red, white, and blue plaid sport coat and wore it to school on the day yearbook pictures were being taken (See the photo above). He complimented the sport coat with a white shirt and blue bow tie. Rumor has it he was also wearing Bermuda shorts, but the photo doesn’t include his lower body. The photo was a hit, and Bill repeated the same look every year afterwards.
Bill and I were once having a conversation about what music we had on our iPods. My taste in music is pretty conventional. Most of what I listen to comes from the 70s and 80’s, with a few newer bands thrown in.
Bill’s iPod was all over the board. At the moment, Bill explained, he was really into music from 1980’s Italian porn movies. When he said that, I laughed. I thought he was kidding. He wasn’t. He had actually downloaded 1980’s Italian porn music (Where would you even get that?). He had been listening to it for a while, and he really liked it. That was pretty typical of Bill.
A Kind Word and A Smile
Bill believed that small gestures could have a big and meaningful impact. In addition to teaching, Bill was the head high school golf coach. At the last golf match of the season, Bill walked the course with the seniors. It was a chance for him to discuss the golf season, share some thoughts and memories, and let the senior players know that, although they might be moving on with life, away from high school, he’d always be there for them. It was just one of the many ways Bill showed his students that he had their back, that he’d lend an ear if they ever needed to talk, and that he believed in their ability to do great things.
When one of Bill’s co-workers announced that she was pregnant with a boy, Bill wrote a letter to the teacher’s unborn child. He wanted to let the boy know that he had a great and talented mother. Bill realized he could have a positive impact on the lives of other people, so he put in a little extra time and effort to do so. That was Bill’s way.
Packers vs Bears
Bill was a fan of the Green Bay Packers. I’m not sure how that happened. He was raised in Chicago Bears country but came away cheering for the Packers. And he was always more than happy to remind anyone of his fandom if they ever forgot, although it would have been hard to forget considering the ugly green and gold Packers sweater he often wore.
Bill loved to point out the Packers recent (And by recent, I mean the last thirty years) dominance over the Bears. He was heartless and relentless in his support of the Packers, especially when they played the Bears. But in recent years, something changed. He toned down the rhetoric a little. There were even times that I didn’t get a message from Bill when the Packers humiliated the Bears.
It could be that Bill was getting soft in his old age. I think even Bill, the ultimate Packers fan, was beginning to feel a little mercy toward his friends who were Bears fans. I could be wrong, but when it came to the Packers-Bears rivalry, it was almost like Bill was beginning to feel something akin to compassion. He wanted the Packers to destroy the Bears. He wanted the Bears to walk away humbled and emasculated. But he didn’t want to see his friends suffer anymore. Or maybe I’m just trying to ascribe human emotions to Bill when it comes to his Packers fandom. I don’t know. That seems unlikely. Like I say, I could be wrong.
I Hope It’s Not Too Late
I loved Bill Breeden. He was a wonderful husband to Sierra, a great and supportive friend, a talented and passionate teacher, and an all around good guy. I was proud to know him, proud of the career he built for himself, and proud of the man he had become. The sad part is, I never told him. I didn’t tell him I loved him. Guys just don’t do that. I didn’t tell him how proud I was of him for the job he had done as a teacher and a coach, or how impressed I was of the way he handled the role of husband, father, and friend. Why didn’t I tell him?
I don’t think I’m unique in this regard. It’s not unusual for any of us to compliment a stranger on a job well done, but never tell those closest to us how much they mean to us. And I don’t think it’s only men who withhold thoughts and emotions, although I think it’s fair to say that guys are probably worse about this than women. The point is, we’re all guilty.
Telling someone you are close to that you love, respect, and appreciate them can be hard. It carries risk. What if they reject you? What if you embarrass them? What if they don’t feel the same about you? So we hold back, we don’t put ourselves out there, we play it safe. But just think about what we’re losing by keeping our feelings to ourselves.
One of the biggest things I regret as I say goodbye to Bill is that we didn’t open up to each other more. We were both products of the macho Western male mentality that requires men to be strong and reign in their emotions. I get that. But I still wish I had told Bill that I loved him. I wish I had told him how much his friendship meant to me. I wish I would have shared how happy I was for him for his professional successes and his personal triumphs. I wish I had told him how proud I was of the life he had built for himself, a life that included a wife he adored, a son he loved, friends he treasured, and a work family he cherished. I wish I had shared how impressed I was with the way he related to his students, the way they confided in him, and the way he listened, motivated, and supported them. I wish I had said all of this because it was important to me for Bill to know how I felt. How I still feel.
I hope, in some cosmic way, that it’s not too late. That, somehow, Bill knows.