Bill Booras, a masterful artisan, skilled photographer and perennial adoptive father, passed away suddenly on Wednesday, December 8 from probable lung cancer. He was 91.
While no shrinking violet—he was an Army man that enjoyed his evening cocktail—Bill was a consummate gentleman who lived by an unyielding code of standards and ethics. He embraced the humanistic teachings of his Catholic upbringing and never hesitated to extend a hand to anyone fortunate enough to know him.
“In my heart, what I like most about Bill is his willingness to help anyone at any time,” said his friend Marty Knapp. “He was always generous with his information, his knowledge.”
Bill was born on August 1, 1919 to George and Kathleen Booras. George came to America around the turn of the century. After landing in New York from his native Greece, George worked as a meat packer in the Chicago Union Stock Yard & Transit Company. He saved enough money to move to the Bay Area, where he hoped to open a diner.
George took up lodging in a boarding house in Niles. The landlady had a gorgeous red-headed sister named Kathleen Nolan, who had recently emigrated from Ireland. “He looked at this beautiful redhead from Ireland, and he fell flat on his face,” said Bill’s wife, Nadine. They married, opened a greasy spoon diner and had two boys, Jim and Bill.
“Bill had a really fun childhood,” Nadine said. “After school he would run back to the restaurant and make himself a great big hamburger with a big slice of onion. He’d work in the restaurant washing dishes, standing on a box to reach the sink.” Jim and Bill would wander the nearby hills with the family dog; hiking would become a lifelong pastime for Bill.
They lived next to the then-defunct Essanay Studios, where they shot such classics as Charlie Chaplin’s “The Tramp” as well as most of the Broncho Billy westerns. The boys loved exploring the empty film lots and offices.
Kathleen made sure that everyone went to Sunday Mass, and enrolled Bill as an altar boy. The Booras family believed Jesus’ message was one of understanding, and George would often give a job to transients during the Great Depression.
Not everyone in Niles shared George and Kathleen’s ethics. One day George realized that he had never taken the family on a vacation. George entrusted the restaurant to his nephew and packed up the family for a road trip around California. They returned two weeks later to find that the nephew had taken possession of the restaurant’s lease. George opened a second restaurant down the street from his former diner, and soon put his treacherous nephew out of business.
Bill was a compulsive whittler as a child and young adult. He would order patterns from catalogs, from which he would carve model planes and intricate wooden puzzles. By the time he graduated from high school, Bill was already a skilled woodworker.
He became an apprentice at the Mirror Island Naval Shipyard carving mechanical parts or “patterns” for submarines. The three-dimensional patterns would be packed in sand to make a mold for casting the metal mechanical parts. “Anything cast out of metal you’ve got to make out of wood first,” Bill often said. The job required a surgeon’s hand and an engineer’s mind.
Bill learned about photography from his patternmaking mentor, James Douglas. James taught Bill not only how to take photos and develop film, but also how cameras worked, and how to fix and replace their delicate inner workings. It was the start of a lifelong love affair with photography.
Bill liked to say that the key to his longevity was his habit of taking a 15-minute nap every day. “He took a nap every day for as long as he could remember, even in the military,” said his son Clay. “On Mirror Island he would stretch out on his workbench during the lunch break. Because his bench didn’t fit the shape of his back and tailbone, he carved out a little hollow so that it would fit better.”
When war was declared against the Axis forces, Bill wanted to sign up for active duty. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the Navy decided that he was more valuable to the war effort where he was, making patterns for submarines. He was eventually accepted into the Army towards the end of the war. He was trained as a sharpshooter and deployed as a part of a peacekeeping force in Italy, in a small town near Pisa.
Bill took advantage of the GI Bill by enrolling at the California School of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, where he studied woodworking and art appreciation. There he met his first wife, Nelda. Nelda had two young sons, Terry and Steve, from a previous marriage. Bill adopted the boys, and didn’t care that he was ousted from his church for marrying a divorced woman.
Bill and Nelda divorced several years later, but Bill continued to support Terry and Steve. He took them both through the Boy Scout system to the lofty rank of Eagle Scout, something that takes at least a decade “It’s a huge commitment made by father and son, both,” Clay said. He also made sure that they went to college. “He had a strong sense of responsibility to the boys,” Nadine said.
No longer able to support himself and go to school, Bill returned to Mirror Island to resume patternmaking. He then met his second wife, Jeanne. He adopted Jeanne’s young children, Sharon and Clay, and moved to Point Reyes Station. Bill was a caring father. “He was always there for me, guiding me along,” Clay said. “He was a father who led by quiet example, not by force.”
Bill would ride around town on his Vespa scooter with young Clay clutching his waist from behind. He taught Clay photography, and bought him junked lawnmowers to take apart and learn mechanics. “It turned into a mechanical engineering degree, so it worked out well,” Clay said.
Bill took early retirement from Mirror Island in the mid 1970s at age 50. He became an entrepreneur, exploring the fine-art aspect of woodworking. He was going to join the ranks of middle-aged bachelor woodcarvers, traveling from craft show to craft show across California in his white-domed trailer.
A young nurse from the UCLA nursing department threw a monkey wrench into Bill’s lonely plans.
He first met Nadine in 1984 while she was visiting Point Reyes Station, and they ended up spending Thanksgiving together. “He was always a gentleman,” Nadine said. “After we were introduced, I wrote him a letter thanking him for his wonderful hospitality. He wrote back asking if I could stop by again.” After several months of frequent trips to Los Angeles and Point Reyes, they were married in February 1984, at the Chapel of Flowers in Las Vegas.
This marriage took. They enjoyed many similar interests, not the least of which was movies. “We both loved action, science fiction movies,” Nadine said. “We saw movies in Petaluma all the time. Lethal Weapon, Star Wars, Star Trek, Crocodile Dundee, those Hobbit movies, we watched them all, over and over.” Bill collected hundreds of films on laserdisc, which included everything from “Dirty Harry” to recorded operas.
Once, while watching “Armageddon” in the theater, Nadine was struck by a heart attack. Rather than spoil the movie, she waited for the credits before driving to the hospital, where she needed triple bypass surgery. “Heart attack be damned, I’m waiting for the end of the movie!” Nadine said.
Bill stayed busy his whole life, and became known for his beautiful carved signs for local businesses, including the bicentennial sign showing the West Marin coastline for the Chamber of Commerce. Readers might recognize his work hanging in front of the Inverness and Point Reyes Station post offices, local veterinary clinic and local churches like St. Eugene’s, St. Mary’s and Sacred Heart.
“And whenever he needed to fix something, he would use the skills that he knew,” Clay said. “If you needed a new towel rack, he’d make one himself out of wood with a sunflower design on it. He needed a new dashboard for his car, so he ripped out the old one and made a new one out of wood.”
Even as an old man, Bill could do seemingly impossible labor. “He built a house in Inverness, a rock wall. He was like an Egyptian [builder],” said his stepson, Cedric. “He was a very powerful man.”
Everyone was surprised to find that he stayed so fit while living on a generally trashy diet. “He lived on Wonderbread toast, Tang, martinis, French vanilla ice cream and beef stew,” Nadine said.
Bill gave a lot to his community. He was a member of the Lion’s Club, carving turkeys for the homeless every Thanksgiving. He once bought what turned out to be a valuable woodblock print at a yard sale for a paltry amount. Once he realized the value of the print, he cleaned it and returned it to the family he bought it from.
Bill was always happy to impart practical knowledge. “You learned a lot from Bill, if you hung out with him,” said his friend Art Rogers, who often extemporizes on Bill’s good nature. “He was one of the gentlest, sweetest men I’ve ever known.”
Bill loved to exchange knowledge and equipment with fellow photographers. “There was a time I needed a special lens, back when I was starting my photographic career in the 1980s, so I talked to Bill,” Marty Knapp said. “He had just the thing I needed. Whenever I pick it up, I think of Bill.”
A gentleman, Bill never uttered a taboo word. “He was always so dapper. Not overdressed, but would wear sweaters, a tie and his shoes would be shined,” Art said. “Then the next minute he’d have coveralls on and crawl underneath a car.” He was known for wearing a beret on cold days.
Bill was physically active within a month of his death. “The guy was like a truck that every day you turn it on and it runs. Every day,” Cedric said. “And then one day, it doesn’t start. He was pretty amazing.”
Bill is survived by his wife, Nadine; sons Terry, Steve and Clay; stepsons Cedric and Auguste; daughter, Sharon; and stepdaughters Vicki and Laila. Contributions can be made to Helping Hands, c/o Sacred Heart Church, P.O. Box 70, Olema, CA 94950.