There's no telling when water took hold of Bill Zimmermann. As director of Seven Seas Sailing School, he respects it. As an environmental advocate, he promotes it. His many projects -- a philanthropic sailing school in India, converting a South Buffalo lighthouse into a marine history school and consolidating waterfront nonprofit groups -- keep him busy enough, when it comes to Buffalo and its great lake, there's something else that makes this vibrant man smile.
>Christopher Columbus really is your hero?
I think he is a fascinating character whose kaleidoscope of controversy is in many places warranted. You have to separate the man from the myth. I've sailed several places Columbus discovered in the Bahamas. He discovered 1,700 islands. I swim every day at the Knights of Columbus. I am a Knight of Columbus.
>What have you recently discovered about yourself that surprises you?
It's uncanny. I've been working for two years unraveling a UB derived patent on an antimicrobial composition, working with scientists to see where it can launch into the marketplace. Given FDA regulations and funding issues, bringing a brilliant idea from the patent stage to the global scene takes years. At age 51, I realized I'm not going to be able to retire until I'm 85.
>What does water do for you?
Inspires and humbles. Your life is on the line if you misuse your respect of the water. There's a journey with almost any water activity, and it can bring you closer to your soul. Whether you're scuba diving or fishing or swimming or boating, you're dealing with an ever-changing element that's bigger than you.
>Do you come from a family of sailors?
My folks got me involved at 11, which is a great age to start sailing. You have the physical strength and mental desire to learn the art and science of sailing. I started on a 16-foot wooden yellow Penguin sailboat. I had a blast.
>Why don't more people know about you?
It's OK to be in the background. It's not about me, it's about the projects. My Seven Seas [sailing school] efforts are special to me -- using sailing to learn about the environment and your role in it. That's what it's all about.
>Tell me more.
All along the Buffalo River from the Cotter to the Frank Lloyd Wright Boathouse, there are dozens of nonprofit stakeholders in our waterfront. Small staffs, small budgets with big dreams. If we collect them all together and realize this half-billion dollar infrastructure waiting to turn the lights on, we would call it the Buffalo Maritime Grid, and have maps and charts and promotion pieces.
>Other than water, what else do you have time for?
I oil paint. I have a studio upstairs in my house. I have a whole series of nautical paintings that I plan to do this winter. When I was 6 years old, I did a painting of Paul McCartney. I write poetry. I've got a book of poetry. I'm art and science. I'm very active in the Community Music School, which I've been going to since I was 6. I sing every week with the Blessed Sacrament Choir. I call it Gregorian Rap. And I write about Buffalo history. This sounds like bragging, and I don't want to brag.
>You appreciate the arts.
Always. I starred in several musicals in Amherst High School. I played Sheridan Whiteside in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" I played Patrick in "Mame." I directed "Othello." As I was going to college, I realized I satisfied my ego for being on stage, and I wanted to write. No, I'm not shy but I love privacy. I love quiet. I love research. And I'm equally happy being gregarious in a crowd. My girlfriend can't stand it. In the first 15 minutes of a party, I've made five friends, and I've got them singing.
>You must have a lot of friends.
I hope so. I try to meet one or two more every day, and that's enriching. It's pretty exhilarating to meet the different people in Buffalo and find out that we're all basically cousins.
>What is your strongest attribute?
I love to write, and I love to draw the fervor and passion that writing provides. I've kept a journal since I was 14. It contains progress reports and attitudes as well as philosophy, observation.
>If you had one thing to say to Columbus, what would it be?
Thanks for never giving up on your dream, and being so colorful, and so inspiring. Thanks for discovering the trade winds.