Bill Kooiman, 1927–2011

09/29/2011

In the spring 1954, a young mariner named Bill Kooiman stepped to the edge of the S.S. Santa Maria, steaming north off the coast of South America, and tossed a bottle into the blue. In it, a note: “I would appreciate the finder corresponding with the undersigned.”

Three years later, back on land, he received a reply. “Dear Sir,” it began, “The voyage of this bottle has been most interesting.” 

William “Bill” Kooiman Jr., a reticent naval veteran who sailed the seven seas and later became an invaluable reference on the ships that helped him do it, died peacefully at his home in Inverness Park on September 9, after a two-year battle with cancer. He was 84.

“He was a great reader and always to the point; Bill had little time for small talk,” said his longtime physician and personal friend, Dr. Michael Whitt. “But he did love to talk about the sea.”

Born March 28, 1927 in Pipestone, Minnesota to William Sr., a banker, and Jennie, a grade school instructor, Bill was a quiet youth who collected coins and often grappled with a nettlesome stutter, which would eventually wane with age. 

The family was close, and Bill and his younger brother, Robert, spent much time with their grandparents and worshipping at the nearby Lutheran church. He threw newspapers as a teen and grew fond of aiming a hunting rifle. 

In the fall 1945, still a senior in high school, Bill enlisted in the Navy and was shipped to postwar Japan. For two years he served as a corpsman stationed on shore near the small town of Yokosuka, where he taught himself Japanese and courted a young native. “That didn’t surprise me at all,” said his wife Esther. “Bill was quite the ladies man back then.”

After returning to the states, Bill matriculated at George Washington University, where he studied political science and joined the school’s shooting team. He would often pass President Truman, surrounded by agents and out for his morning walk, while heading to class. “And Bill would always say, ‘Good morning, Mr. President,’” Esther said. “And then President Truman would reply, ‘Well good morning, son.’”

Bill graduated in 1950, and spent six subsequent months tooling around Europe. He loved language, and studied French intently while in Paris. He also later took part in a Spanish-immersion program in Mexico.

But the sea beckoned, and, after a brief stint in the Naval Reserves, Bill became a purser for the shipping company Grace Line, which transported bananas and guano and paying passengers along the western coast of the Americas. He estimated that while working for the company he traveled through the Panama Canal at least 95 times. 

In 1963, Bill was hired as the chief purser aboard the first peacetime hospital ship, the USS HOPE. The HOPE spent ten-month intervals providing medical supplies and care to communities in impoverished foreign countries. He worked for the ship through eight voyages, until it was decommissioned in 1974.

On his fifth voyage, while stationed off the coast of Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, Bill met a pediatric nurse named Esther. The two became close, taking countless trips hiking up into the surrounding hillsides and fishing in nearby, hidden inlets. They were engaged a year later, and married three days after that in Redwood City. “My parents knew,” Esther said. “But Bill didn’t tell his. We flew back East not long after the wedding and I remember he introduced me to his aunts for the first time as his wife and they were dumbfounded.”

The HOPE was a bastion of American ingenuity. With an average medical staff of only a hundred, it operated two pediatric wards, two surgical units, vision and dental clinics and an elaborate processing machine dubbed the Iron Cow, which produced liquid milk from condensed seawater, butter fat and powdered substitute. 

The couple spent four voyages together, one off the coast of Tunisia, another at Kingston, Jamaica and two in northern Brazil. In 1973, two weeks prior to departing Brazil for the second time, they adopted a baby girl and named her Jenness Anne.

When the HOPE was retired a year later, the family moved to West Marin. “Bill wanted two things: trees and a place to keep a boat,” Esther said. “Out of the five places we considered relocating to, Inverness and Inverness Park was where he wanted to live.” 

Bill continued working part-time on ships until 1983, at which point he began writing his book, The Grace Ships – 1869-1969. He was a voracious reader and human reference of maritime history, publishing articles in several maritime magazines over the years. He also worked as an information specialist at the Maritime Library in Fort Mason until retiring in 2009. 

“He was a walking encyclopedia,” said Carl Nolte, a longtime columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle who enjoyed regularly peppering Bill with questions. “He was always agreeable and willing to help anyone who wanted to know anything about nautical history.”

Two months after retiring, Bill was diagnosed with a form of myelodysplastic syndrome, which affects the bone marrow and prevents one’s blood from being able to clot. He was treated regularly with blood transfusions, and could not receive surgery of any kind. 

Bill is survived by his wife of 42 years, Esther; daughter, Jenness Anne Kooiman; grandson, Spencer Moreno; nieces Rita Lynn (Bob) Patrias, Bonita Kooiman Warner, Lisa (Kurt) Bromschwig and nephews Randy (Linda) Kooiman and William C. (Eydie) Kooiman; cousins Joyce Campbell and Betty Mae Skelley (Gerald). He was preceded in death by his brother, Robert Ray Kooiman, who died five days earlier, on September 5, 2011.

The family wishes to express thanks to Dr. Michael Whitt and staff of the West Marin Medical Center in Point Reyes Station, to Dr. Peter Eisenberg and the many physicians and staff at the Marin Cancer Care Clinic in Corte Madera, to the nurses and other staff at the Marin General Hospital Outpatient Clinic and to Hospice by the Bay for their kindness and support during his illness. Memorials may be sent to Project HOPE, 255 Carter Hall Lane, Millwood, VA, 22646 or online at www.projecthope.org. 

Neptune Society of Northern California-Marin is making arrangements for scattering of his ashes at sea sometime in the coming months. A celebration of his life will take place at the Maritime Library in San Francisco. Details will be announced.