Friday, July 20, 2012

Martin High School's Most Devoted Fan

Bill Elliot
Our town had its village idiot.  Well, everybody thought he was an idiot. His name was Bill Elliot, aka Wild Bill Elliot.  Wild Bill “wasn’t quite right,” people used to say, but people loved him anyway.  People made allowances for him, we always said.

I first saw Bill—my parents taught me to call him Bill out of respect, but others called him Wild Bill—at a high school basketball game.  He never missed a basketball game, or a football game, or a ball game of any kind, unless he was banned from the venue.

You see, Bill was not just a fan, he was a wild fan, with a booming voice that could be heard above all the game noise.  He was Martin High School’s most devoted fan.  He delighted and embarrassed us at the same time. 

Opposing fans were amused by Bill, and most tolerated him, but game officials dreaded him.  We never had a game he didn’t disrupt.  He simply could not help himself.  He couldn’t control his emotions or soften his bullfrog voice.  Many times he would run onto the court or the field to challenge the referees’ calls.  Technical fouls on our team, because of Bill, were numerous.  Ejection from the gym or from the sidelines of football games was common.

Bill was also an avid baseball fan, and his favorite team was the Brooklyn Dodgers.  That took courage in a Southern town in the 50s because Brooklyn had Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella on their team, both Negroes.  Bill, of course, was called a “nigger-lover,” and worse, but he never wavered in his loyalty to Jackie, Campy, and the Dodgers.   That showed me a lot a character in Bill that I’m sad to say most people didn’t see and appreciate.

When I got to high school and began playing football, Bill befriended me, as he did all the athletes in school.  Encouraged by my parents, I took a liking to Bill.  He was kind, funny, and a walking encyclopedia to baseball trivia.  If you wanted to know who struck out Babe Ruth in a particular game, Bill knew the name.  He also knew the date, the inning, and the count.  Not only that, he could recite the pitcher’s stats all the way back to the minors.  You name the baseball game, Bill could give you the box scores.  He was amazing.

I never knew Bill’s affliction.  When he was not overly excited, he appeared almost normal.  He would talk to you about anything, but he had a childlike understanding of things.  He had seizures from time to time, so he couldn’t drive a car.  That never deterred him from attending out-of-town games.  If he couldn’t hitch a ride on the band or team bus, he’s get a ride with somebody, but he was always there.  We might not see him, but we always heard him.

Bill never held a regular job, but he was always working at something.  He would do odd jobs of any kind, even if he didn’t get paid.  Every Thursday afternoon, you could see Bill at the intersection of Main and Lindell selling the Weakley Country Press, our weekly newspaper.  Most of the paperboys were boys, and Bill was just one of the boys.

When I returned to Martin after college and after serving in the Marines, I purchased a minority interest in the Press, and became its editor and publisher.  I was delighted to see that Bill, now in his 50s, was one of my paperboys.

The papers usually hit the street about 3 p.m.  At 4 p.m. Bill would sell out of papers and return to the office to pick up another 100 or more, but I noticed he didn’t return to Main and Lindell, which was right in front of our office.  I also noticed he never brought any papers back.  He always sold as many papers as all the other boys combined.

One day I asked, “Bill, I notice you don’t go back to your usual place with your second bundle of papers.  Where do you go?”

He said, “Oh, I go over to the shirt factory.  They let out at 4:30, and I stand at the bottom of the steps and just hand them out with one hand and take the money with the other hand.  Folks have the right change ready.  It saves them and me a lot of time.  It’s a lot easier than stopping cars on the street and making change.”

Bill taught me that even people with handicaps have offsetting abilities.  He taught me that one can learn a lot from any person, by just becoming their friend and getting to know them. 

Bill wasn’t intellectually smart.  He wasn’t emotionally stable.  But Bill had something that wasn’t common, then or now.  He had common sense.  He had character.  He was loyal to his town, his school, his teams, his employers, and his friends. Bill was quite a man.  He was no idiot!


Carol said...

How well I remember "Wild Bill." You are so right. We were alternately proud and embarrassed by his actions, but everyone accepted him for who he was. That wouldn't be allowed today. Thanks for writing this. It brought back memories of many basketball games.

corbitt callis said...

This brings back so many sweet and wonderful memories..he was Martin's special friend!
I am so blessed to have grown up in Martin in the 50s.

corbitt callis said...

Hmm Guess I just lost my first name..oh well...kinda like just corbitt callis. lol!

Dr. John Fairless said...

Nobody who grew up in Martin in any decade from the 50's through the 80's could miss or ever forget Bill Elliott. As a child, I sometimes laughed at his antics -- or, at times tried to emulate them! His was absolutely one of the most distinct voices I have ever heard -- right up there with James Earl Jones (can you imagine Wild Bill intoning, "This is CNN!")

Later, as a young adult, I took the time to get to know the Bill beneath the caricature. What a gentle soul when he was, as you so eloquently put it, Harvey, "not overly excited."

Bill also used to make the rounds of the city churches during summer revival season -- a Gadarene-like transformation come over him -- he appeared dressed and in his right mind. He was eternally asking God to forgive him for losing his temper.

Bill cared. I think that's what we all should take from our memories of him. If that caring "carried" him away a bit -- well, we should all be so crazy!

Anonymous said...

I left this post on Martin Memories webpage, but will leave it here as well. Touching blog regarding your some of your “Wild Bill” memories. I had to smile at Mr. Bill’s entrepreneurial ingenuity on the location of his second-bundle newspaper sales – the location of the “shirt factory” being so close to the PRESS office. Great timing for quick sales and captive customers – Mr. Bill had it figured out. I think I have already posted on the Martin Memories page somewhere months ago that I was Mr. Bill’s “captive audience” every football / basketball season. For all of my growing-up years, my dad, Eddie Fuqua, could be counted on for making all the out-of-town games. My parents, two brothers, and I always made room for Mr. Bill in the car if he needed a ride. Of course, all the way back to Martin, Mr. Bill would give us a recount of game plays – good, bad, and ugly. After Mr. Bill’s death, Paul Tinkle wrote a letter to the editor in the PRESS suggesting Martin name a ball field in Mr. Bill’s honor. I’ve always thought this would be a most fitting tribute, but don’t guess it has ever materialized. You have a knack in your penmanship, Mr. Gardner – keep those Martin memories coming. God bless.