By Jenny Neyman
When friends and family come together for Bill Reeder’s memorial in Soldotna on Sunday, they will have 90 years worth of stories, tributes and loving memories of the former Soldotna mayor to share.
The gathering — first at Soldotna Memorial Park Cemetery, next to the Veterans Memorial, then at the Soldotna Senior Center — would meet with Reeder’s approval, especially given his work to support those places. And there was nothing he enjoyed more than being surrounded by family and friends.
But not being the center of attention. If Reeder could have his way, he’d probably rather that they pay their respects to Soldotna, the community he lived in and loved for more than 45 years. Or, better yet, that they do something to demonstrate that respect. Being as conservative in conversation as he was copious of character, what Reeder said, he meant, but it was through action that he made his loudest statements. In that, his love of family and community could have reverberated off the rooftops — the handful that were here in the 1960s to the much-denser count today.
“He never wanted praise or thanks, he just wanted the right thing to happen. It was so important to him, he just loved this town,” said Rosie Reeder, his wife of 33 years.
“His involvement with civic organizations and the veterans and senior center was impressive. He really took a lot of his own personal time to help out other people. I think that’s a legacy that I know I admired, and I’m sure everybody else who knew Bill admired about him,” said Dorothy Gray, longtime friend. “He’d put in the time to make things better. He didn’t just sit back and take a backseat. Bill made things happen.”
It was love at first sight for Reeder and Soldotna, although there was significantly less to see in those days. His eldest son, Col. (retired) William Reeder Jr. came to visit a few years after his dad moved to town in 1966, and has no trouble recalling what was here at the time. The difficulty is in believing how it’s grown.
“I remember the town of Soldotna being much more like the town in (the 1990s TV show) ‘Northern Exposure’ than what we see today,” he said. There was the 4 Royle Parkers restaurant and bar, the old post office, a small grocery store, “Maybe two gas stations, maybe four or five other bars besides Parkers, and that was pretty much Soldotna except for a few houses. It has grown and exploded in the years since then. Whoever would have thought we’d have a Fred Meyer and all these fast food places? It’s just unimaginable.”
The elder Reeder could easily imagine making his home here. He was familiar with small-town life, having grown up with his maternal grandparents in the sparsely populated town of Thermal in the California desert. His father died when Reeder, born April 30, 1923, was a baby, the victim of an accidental gun discharge at the restaurant he and his wife ran in Los Angeles. Reeder’s grandfather was a shop teacher and hobbyist inventor, filing patents on an early version of a convertible car top and a pop-up camper. The patents were sold by a descendent without ever making the family much money, but Reeder was rich in inheriting his granddad’s scientific curiosity and engineering-oriented intellect.
After graduating from Coachella Valley Union High School in Thermal in 1941 and attending a year of college, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1942, was recruited for officer training and sent to Cal Tech University.
“All was going gangbusters until he met a young lady who lived a short ways away in Glendale, California — my mother — and his studies suffered, his grades fell, and he did not finish the program at Cal Tech, nor did he get commissioned as an officer in the Navy,” Reeder Jr. said.
He ended up heading to combat duty in World War II as an enlisted Aviation Radioman 3rd Class, serving on the USS Bon Homme Richard aircraft carrier in the Pacific, being honorably discharged in 1946. Life back in California included his growing family, which expanded to four sons — William Jr., Gregory, Wes and Don — and working as an executive salesman at LD Reeder Co., the family construction and acoustic-ceiling tile business.
He and his first wife, Helen, divorced, and Reeder remarried and moved to Hawaii with his second wife, Carol, who was originally from Kodiak.
“My dad had had an interest in Alaska, and now found himself with a wife from Alaska telling these great stories of life in the Last Frontier. So he made a decision,” Reeder Jr. said.
They sold everything they had in Hawaii, went to Seattle, bought an International Scout vehicle and drove the Alaska Highway to Anchorage, arriving shortly after the Good Friday Earthquake in 1965.
“When he headed up here he had nothing other than a love for Alaska, but he carved out his niche up here,” Reeder Jr. said.
Reeder worked sales at Brady’s Floor Covering in Anchorage — “Under the arrow at Fifth and Barrow,” as the jingle rang. But Anchorage didn’t ring home for him.
“He had visited Soldotna and just fell in love with the Kenai and with this then-little community,” Reeder Jr. said.
He moved down in 1966 and set about a new career that would support his second family, which grew into sons, Spencer (who died in a boating accident in the Kenai River in 1988) and Daniel, and daughter, Sarah. At first he worked at the Union 76 gas station in Soldotna, near where Enstar is today. With his engineering background he got work with Marathon Oil, first as a roustabout on the Dolly Varden platform, and working up to associate engineer out of Marathon’s Kenai office. During his 20-year career, Reeder campaigned to relocate his California roots north, though nearer to his retirement he started considering the opposite.
“As I’d come up here we’d talk about Alaska and maybe me moving up here some day. But then we’d also talk about, ‘What are you going to do when you retire?’ He’d say, ‘I’ll come back down to the Lower 48,’” Reeder Jr. said.
It came close to happening. He and his third wife, Rosie, married in 1980, bought a condo near Bellingham, Wash., in 1987, with the intention of relocating once Reeder retired. That point came unexpectedly the next year, when Marathon decided his position would be restructured and he could either retire or do the new job — not a change he desired to make. Neither, as it turned out, was leaving Alaska, and they sold the condo in 1988.
“He decided Alaska was his home, his blood,” Reeder Jr. said.
Specifically, that blood was type Soldotna positive.
“He was very much a Soldotna guy, that was his home. He wanted Soldotna to be the best it could be,” said Ken Lancaster, longtime friend of Reeder who was elected mayor after Reeder’s term and later went on to serve in the Alaska Legislature. Lancaster and his wife, Mavis, also owned Laurawood Arms senior apartments, which Bill and Rosie Reeder managed for 20 years.
With time freed up by his retirement from Marathon, Reeder decided to invest it in his community. He ran for city council in 1988 and narrowly won a seat after a tie with another candidate.
“It was within a few votes so the council had to decide. They voted four times, because they were both good men and they both agreed either one would do fine,” Rosie said.
He was re-elected to a three-year term in 1990 and was designated vice mayor. When the mayor, Gary Davis, was elected to the Legislature, Reeder was appointed to fill his term, then was elected to a full term as mayor in 1993.
Reeder also served on the board of directors for Central Peninsula Hospital, was the board president for the Soldotna Senior Center, a board member for the Mountain Rose Housing Association, a member of the VFW and a master mason.
Those were busy times in Soldotna, and the work done in those years resulted in projects that help define Soldotna today — the planning of Soldotna Creek Park, a renovation of the senior center and the expansion of Central Peninsula Hospital. He was particularly concerned with establishing bike lanes in Soldotna, and was supportive of having a teen center in town.
Reeder wasn’t a fan of change or spending money simply for the sake of it, but if he could see a direct benefit from a new initiative or project, he was behind it.
“He’s always been for anything that was positive and progressive as long as it wasn’t, you know, crazy,” Rosie said.
Reeder was particularly supportive of veterans issues. Military service was a proud tradition in his family, and Reeder supported anything that honored or supported vets. He fought hard for a Veterans Administration clinic in Kenai, even though, with his retirement health insurance, he had no need of its services.
“But he thought it was an absolute crime that veterans had to drive all the way to Anchorage for anything — a shot, for heaven’s sake,” Rosie said.
Establishing a cemetery was another big issue for Reeder. He and other longtime residents vowed they would live until they could be buried in Soldotna, but he didn’t want it to be any old spot in town. A plan to build the cemetery out by the airport incensed him to the point of expressing his opinion in humorous poetic form in a letter to the editor — completely out of character for him, Rosie said.
Bury me not by runway three
Where the brown bear walks over me
Where the moose do roam and planes you see
O’ bury me not by runway three.
It makes no difference, so I’ve been told
Where the body lies, when it’s grown cold
But grant, I pray, one wish to me
O’ bury me not by runway three.
Soldotna’s Airport is not for me
West Redoubt is the place to be
So, honor this my dying plea
Bury me not by runway three.
(Author’s note: A few lines cribbed from “Don’t Bury Me On The Lone Prairie.”)
Bill Reeder, Soldotna (published April 2009)
When that fight was won and the cemetery was built along Redoubt Avenue above the Kenai River, Reeder was among the committee that planned the Veterans Memorial.
For his many civic involvements, Reeder was named the Person of the Year by the Soldotna Chamber in 1994, has led the Progress Days parade, has a commendation letter from Sen. Ted Stevens and other such accolades, for which he cared little. Achieving an improvement for his town and fellow citizens was all the reward Reeder ever wanted for his efforts. Even the prestige of the title of mayor and encouragements to run for statewide office didn’t hold any appeal for him.
“He was more interested in caring and helping to get things done. The politics were really just the way he was able to do that,” Reeder Jr. said.
“He was not impressed with the fact that he was the mayor,” Rosie said. “One time he said he wished he hadn’t gotten elected as mayor because, ‘You can’t get anything done as mayor.’ It would bother him because things would come up but it wouldn’t come to him to vote unless it was a tie on the council. He said, ‘You’re just leading the meeting.’ That really frustrated him as mayor. I don’t think it was ever about politics or power or any of that, he just wanted this town to be so good.”
Not being motivated by a desire for respect still earned him a lot of it.
“He was a great guy and he will be missed. He was pretty low-key, maybe not quite behind the scenes, but he wasn’t a real aggressive type of an individual. He was just always there and involved and willing to lend a hand,” Lancaster said.
He was quiet but effective, often leading by doing.
“For me, personally, my dad was always an example that I tried throughout my life to live up to. Mainly as just being a good person. If I ever want to know what the standard is to be a good man, I’d just look to my dad. And I’ve tried to come as close as I could, but I never quite could be as good of a man as he was,” Reeder Jr. said.
“He was able to masterfully engage people in doing the right thing for the good of other people. He was a special, special person and I’m happy to have known him,” Gray said.
Gray met Reeder as soon as she moved to town in 1978, as they both attended the Russian Orthodox Church in Kenai and would go for coffee or breakfast after service so he could help introduce her to the community. After Reeder and his second wife divorced, Gray decided to introduce him to another dear friend she’d made — Rosemary Rochowiak.
“They hit it off and I was the maid of honor at their wedding. It was the best match I’ve ever made in my life,” Gray said.
“What I admired in him was his character and his intelligence and all those things, and I always thought, ‘I wonder what he sees in me?’” Rosie said. “Because I’m not like that at all. We were day and night in many ways. Opposites do attract. I was married to him for half my life — the best half.”
Whereas Rosie makes up for Reeder’s tendency toward quiet, he had his areas of loquaciousness, like when one of the kids or grandkids would ask him to explain something.
“Our famous thing is we would be in the car and the kids would ask something, like, ‘Mimi, why is the light … never mind, I’ll ask Poppy.’ And he’d have this long, drawn-out explanation, ‘Forty million years ago,’ and he’d start talking in this language you couldn’t understand, and it would take him 10 minutes,” Rosie said. “But they wouldn’t ask him if they didn’t want to listen. So that was his claim to fame — he could answer any question with 5,000 words or more, and with Mimi it was, ‘I don’t know, take it or leave it.’”
Reeder had a lifelong fascination with science, subscribing to about 10 scientific magazines and reading them cover to cover, along with the newspaper, which he read “like it was the Bible,” Rosie said. He also was a talented artist, another trait that runs through his kids.
“As a little kid we’d sit there studying science and I can remember him talking to me about the escape velocity of the Earth and all this stuff, and I couldn’t have been more than 5 years old,” Reeder Jr. said.
Above all, he remembers his dad encouraging all his kids to follow their dreams.
“He was always very enthusiastic and encouraging to do your best, go forward, grab a hold of a dream and go for it, whatever that is,” Reeder said.
Rosie said that she always appreciated how he encouraged her kids — daughter, Rhonda, and son, Ryan — be themselves, and that she was grateful for the close relationship they had with “Reeder,” as they, and many others in town, called him.
And he was indeed known by many, even as his declining health restricted his involvements in town. He never lacked for friends, and all his far-flung family made a point of getting together every five years to celebrate his birthdays — his 75th, 80th, 86th and 90th on April 23. It didn’t have to be a huge party or some elaborate event, just being with the people he loved, in the place he loved, was all he wanted.
“He most happy being with family. He’d be content to sit here with family at the house (and he and Rosie’s dogs, Lizzie and Harley) — he just loved it. Family was just the center of his universe. And right next to that was his community. It might sound trite, but this community of Soldotna was so dear to him,” Reeder Jr. said.
As much as Reeder will be missed, Reeder Jr. said that he can’t think of a more fitting way for his father to pass on than being laid to rest right before Veterans Day, in the cemetery he pushed for, next to the Veterans Memorial he helped design, in the community he helped build, cemented in the hearts of the people he did it all for.
“A Soldotna veteran goes home,” Reeder Jr. said.
A graveside service for William Spencer Reeder Sr. will be held at 1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 10, at Soldotna Memorial Park Cemetery, with a reception following at the Soldotna Senior Center.