Sean Kirst: Transcending disabilities, Bill Gill opened minds - The Buffalo News

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Sean Kirst: Transcending disabilities, Bill Gill opened minds

On a quiet night this week, as I read through the death notices at my desk in the newsroom, a listing jumped out at me in the way it sometimes happens. A familiar name, out of nowhere, sent a jolt through my stomach.

William Gill III.

If this happened to be the guy I knew, we had always called him Billy.

I wasn't sure at first. The name isn't that uncommon. Still, I made a call to his older sister, Victoria Randall, and she confirmed it was the same Bill, from Tonawanda. It turns out he had a heart attack last week, and he fell hard and hit his head. That was how he died, at 54.

Victoria was quiet for a minute, and then said: "We'd been planning to go and see the Wonder Woman movie."

Billy still loved superheroes, as he did when I met him.

I hadn't seen him in 35 years, but he was in my life long enough to change the way I see the world. Even though he was younger than I was, even though I was supposedly his supervisor, he was really my mentor, my teacher. I never forgot his sense of humor, his passion, the singular cadence of his voice.

Billy Gill with his sisters, Lynn Hofner and Victoria Randall.

Billy – in this piece, that's what I'll call him, although the world knew him as "Bill" – and I met at a place called St. Joseph's School for Exceptional Children, on the outskirts of Dunkirk. That was in the days when true inclusion was still a dream in most mainstream schools. St. Joseph's entire student body consisted of children born with developmental disabilities, most from greater Buffalo. The school is closed now. It had many staff members I admired, but it was set away from the larger community.

My mother worked there as a cleaning woman. I was in college. She told me they needed a night residential aide. The duties involved supervising a group of teenage boys, born with an array of disabilities. I stayed with them from the time they finished school every afternoon until the time they went to bed, maybe six hours later.

While I took the job, I had no real clue about what I was doing. I liked to think I was enlightened, understanding, but I was kidding myself: My exposure to children with disabilities was minimal. On my first day at St. Joseph's, my supervisor led me into a lounge, where all the boys were waiting.

They erupted in excitement when they saw me. I can close my eyes and recall the tumult of that moment, especially from Billy, who was wiry and toothpick thin. My supervisor told a joke and Billy laughed so hard he threw himself onto the carpet, holding his stomach, rocking back and forth, roaring.

I froze. I was overwhelmed. I didn't know what to make of it.

Yet I learned, quickly, to recognize the essence of such moments.

Billy was offering utter sincerity.

In the weeks and months that followed, those young men opened my mind. I'd grown up in a culture that made all-too-easy use of the expression "retarded." I quickly learned why the word was misguided, a contradiction in itself. I had one guy in my group who was a superb youth hockey league player in Niagara Falls. I had another guy who could take a broken bicycle and put it back together. There was another guy who read constantly, voraciously, and could offer up astounding bits of history.

Billy made a particular impression. Everything about him was distinctive: He wore baggy jeans and striped shirts. He moved fast, with his hand on the back of his head when he was thinking, which was constantly. He was always consumed with interest in the topic of the moment. He talked in explosive, repetitive exclamations: "Aw, geez! Aw, geez! Aw, geez!"

He'd get something on his mind and walk in furious circles, and he'd be telling you a story at a 100-miles-per-hour pace and he would abruptly say something funny or outrageous. All of a sudden, he would freeze. He would catch your eye.

And he would smile.

In that instant, in that understanding, he shared his world.

What I came to realize, from being with these teens every night, was how they triumphed, suffered and worried like everyone else, how they had tremendous insights on human nature, how they had the uncanny ability to understand when something was troubling you, even if you thought you were hiding your problems from the world.

Really, then, it was Billy who was doing the instruction. When I first walked in the door and met him, I saw the disability before I saw the child. He taught me to never make that mistake again. By the time I left the job two years later, I understood he was an astute, reflective teenager, with an extraordinarily keen sense of humor. He showed me, with patience and good humor, what I don't think I truly appreciated in the first place:

He was a warm and vibrant human being, in full.

In that way, he offered lessons that still guide me today.

The last time I last saw him was on a sunny day in 1982, when there was a final-day-of-school celebration at St. Joe's. One of the other counselors from St. Joe's, a fellow college student named Larry Carr, became a high school math teacher and a lifetime friend. Over the years, whenever we talked, Billy was a guy we'd speak of with admiration.

I called Larry when I saw the death notice in the paper.

The funeral was Thursday, a small and beautiful Mass offered by the Rev. Dennis Fronckowiak at St. Timothy's Catholic Church in Tonawanda. That's where I met Billy's twin sister, Lynn Hofner. She and Victoria told me Billy lived for the last 20 years in a state-operated community residence on Dover Drive in West Seneca. He went to a day program in Hamburg, where he loved to help participants who use wheelchairs.

"He was smooth, a real charmer," said Lynn, who said people keep telling her how her brother was unforgettable.

He set an alarm on his watch every night for the beginning of "Wheel of Fortune." He was fiercely loyal to the Bills, the Sabres and the Bandits. He loved superheroes, Nino's pizza and playing in the Touching Bases Softball League, founded for people with disabilities.

His coach, Ray Batt, said Billy also loved playing catcher. He loved it so much, Batt said, with such utter commitment, that he would sometimes wear his catcher's mask to bed.

To his sisters, the idea of a "disability" all depends on your definition. Billy might struggle to figure out the correct change in a grocery store. But he could go into the yard, alone, with a football and then play out four quarters of imaginary football, down by down, while making correct use of every player on the Buffalo Bills roster.

His life had grown more difficult in the past few years. A muscular problem in his throat made it impossible to swallow. While he never complained, he had to go on an all-fluids diet. Victoria said Billy went through it while he was still grieving over the absence of their mother, Catherine, who died in 2014.

Their father, who died 16 years ago, embraced the profession of his own father, the first William Gill. He was a decorator, an artist who specialized in painting the interior of churches. He would climb the scaffolding in houses of worship. He would make an impression of such beauty that it opened hearts and ignited wonder.

In his own way, then, Billy Gill carried on the family business.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work here.

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