William “Bill” Devine
My family was blessed living next door to Anchorage resident Bill Devine for 35 years. Both our homes were located within Elm-Rich Subdivision on the north side of Muldoon. Bill joked about this name all the time. He’d say there are no elm trees, and most everyone’s poor in this ‘hood. Of course he knew Elm-Rich stood for joint military bases ‘Elmendorf – Fort Richardson’.
Bill was an exceptional artist specializing in Alaska related topics; dog mushing at the top of the list. Most folks know that artists are ‘different thinkers’ with Bill being no exception. I say that with upmost respect, because my friend’s insight and twisted humor on various topics kept us in stitches.
During the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous sometime in the 1980’s, Bill was crowned “Lord Trapper”. He had his beard trimmed to perfection and handlebar moustache waxed just right for the competition. He easily beat out the other contestants. From that point on the name stuck. People called him “Lord Trapper” up until the end.
There was one gentleman in our neighborhood going beyond the call of duty in keeping his lawn prim & proper. Bill referred to him as “The Inspector”. This fellow would get down on hands and knees holding what appeared to be tweezers. The perfectionist would individually pluck dandelions from his perfectly manicured grass. Early in the morning he’d walk the block inspecting our yards.
Of course Bill and I had more important things to do besides tend to lawns. Neighbor Bill said one summer morning he looked out his bedroom window seeing the man, hands on hips, shaking his head profusely. When Bill glanced down at his grass there were yellow pedaled dandelions everywhere. The wind was blowing that day in a northerly direction towards this person’s house. The puffy white seedlings were beginning to take flight making their 50-yard journey to greener pastures.
“That’ll give him something to do!”, Bill quipped.
Sgt. William “Bill” Devine was a true American patriot. He served in the U.S. Air Force in both the Korean and Vietnam War. I recall one poignant story involving Korea. Bill was erroneously reported as killed in action (KIA). That was because he was the only survivor out of his squadron after being overrun by communist troops. All men were reported lost. It was several months later when the Devine family found he was alive. Bill said the news hit his mother especially hard, most likely taking a few years off her life. His parents kept this tragic letter hidden away until their deaths. Bill’s sister now has it.
Bill talked less of his time in Vietnam. He briefly mentioned being part of a clandestine Cambodia mission. He parachuted in with no personal identification, assigned an M-1 folding stock carbine minus serial number. Bill never explained a reason for going there only saying he was fortunate to come back alive. Sgt. Devine served with one other decorated Alaskan soldier during that time. The late and great native leader Percy Blatchford was in one of Bill’s units. Bill told me Percy was the toughest and strongest man he’d ever met. The two war veterans remained good pals long after their military careers ended.
It was in the Air Force where Bill’s art career blossomed. Even though he’d shown artful ability at an early age, his commanding officer took note of the soldier’s exquisite skill in writing; calligraphy for the most part. From that point on Bill created special letters or bulletins for the muckety-mucks as Bill liked to call officers.
Our neighbor was a good hearted and generous person. He gave each of our children a vintage gold coin each Christmas. This was when the precious metal was hovering around $300.00 an ounce. Bill candidly told Gunnar and Miranda,
“Hang on to ‘em because someday they’ll be worth millions.”
Bill had considerable knowledge regarding valuable coins, stamps, and precious metals. He told me whenever he visited a coin or stamp shop, he was like a kid in a candy store. Over the years I observed many people take advantage of my friend. One incident stands out in particular.
Bill designed impressive patriotic eagles for a well-known Anchorage company. A businessman from California saw his work, claiming he could make Bill a fortune by placing the art on clothing. This man had connections to a huge firm selling motif apparel to Wal-Mart. Plans were made for Bill to fly to Los Angeles and present his designs to corporate types.
Bill made the journey taking along several pieces. After the meeting he was informed they’d let him know. He left his artwork behind for executives to scrutinize. Several months rolled by with him hearing nothing. One day as Bill strolled through Wal-Mart something caught his eye. Walking over to a rack of clothing there perched on a cotton tee was one of his eagles. Looking through the rack he spotted several more of his designs.
“I was robbed!”, he sadly told my wife Joleen.
Asking what he did after learning such Bill shrugged his shoulders and replied,
“What could I do? It would’ve taken thousands of dollars to fight those guys!”
He went on explaining how he quickly got over the blow.
“I figured if my work was that good, it must’a been worth stealing!”
That’s how ‘Neighbor Bill’ looked at things. He knew in the end that nobody takes worldly things with them. Had Bill derived considerable wealth from the clothing deal most likely he would’ve given it away!
Bill was especially known for his dog mushing ties. He was best friends to legendary Joe Redington Sr. and wife Vi. The Redington’s would sometimes spend nights with Bill whenever they were in town. He had many dog mushing celebrities’ stop by the Fern Lane house. It wasn’t unusual to spot Susan Butcher at his door; her truck of howling huskies parked out front.
George Attla, Dr. Roland Lombard, and other notables dropped in to have coffee. Bill designed many Iditarod trophies throughout the years. The much celebrated sled dog monument on 4th Avenue has Bill Devine’s name on it. Another one of his works is the stately Joe Redington Sr. memorial in Knik.
As the years slid by Bill’s health took a turn for the worse. A good pal of his and mine, Dale Myers, stepped in to help. Joleen and I did what we could by shopping for groceries or bringing over food. When it became obvious Bill was not going to make it, Dale was appointed executor of his estate. About a year later Bill sadly passed away. Elm-Rich Subdivision was no longer the same. With my mom also gone Joleen and I decided it was time to move.
We think often of Bill and all the kind things he did. ‘Dollars for Dogs’ was a recipient of Bill’s financial support. Many veterans groups either received monetary donations or his valuable time seeking them. The Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. was a favorite. Almost every worthwhile charity in town garnered some type of assistance. Bill was a behind the scenes lobbyist, making sure our son Gunnar received appointment to the Air Force Academy.
Bill wanted a portion of his estate proceeds going to the Iditarod Sled Dog Committee. At a special meeting Dale Myers presented them a check for $124,000.00. Several days later Dale handed Joleen and I a substantial amount of money.
“Bill wanted you guys to have it!”
It was around 1996 when I nominated Bill for ‘Neighbor of the Year’ award. When he was announced winner I wasn’t surprised. The man was quite humble saying others were more deserving. I told him if there were others, I didn’t know their names.
William David Devine left this world on January 16, 2007. If dandelions grow on the other side of life’s fence, I assume Bill’s picked a few. I’m sure he’s put their seeds to humorous use.
On our office wall hangs a marble plaque. Bill Devine’s signature is etched on bottom along with the date 1982. Artwork portrays realistic portrait of a bearded miner bent over a stream. The grizzled character is holding a gold pan and nugget. Very few people know this: Bill penned that scene in his own image. My neighbor claimed had he not been an artist, he would’ve become a gold miner.
“There’s gotta be more money in it!”
I can only imagine with Heaven’s streets covered in the precious metal, Bill Devine’s staked out several claims!