Remembering Bill Doerner

At left: Me, Bill Doerner and Reporter Dick Thompson.
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Bill Doerner was a writer for Time magazine in New York before he was sent out West to take over as head of the San Francisco news bureau—just as AIDS began to decimate the gay community and when angioplasty was becoming a popular option for clogged arteries and the two Steves, Jobs and Wozniak, had built the clunky looking Apple II.

I worked for Bill. I was the news bureau’s office manager,a temporary position, until the “regular” office manager returned from maternity leave.

Bill wasn’t the warmest of people or the most fun. He could make you feel very uncomfortable because I think he felt uncomfortable. He seemed a tad snotty—but beneath all that I discovered a deeply kind man.

When he made the move to the City—which proved to be as temporary as my stint as the office manager– Bill Doerner left behind the excitement of Manhattan, an apartment on West 70th Street and a weekend place in East Hampton.

He’d been born in Missouri in 1941 and spent his entire life in the news business, beginning his career in St. Louis.

Being a writer and a bureau chief require a different set of skills– like morphing from an introvert to an extrovert. To me, the former describes Bill’s personality. More inside than outside. (Some of Time’s bureau chiefs are the stuff of legend and Bill Doerner did not fit into that category—I’m thinking in particular of the bureau chief Bill was replacing, a beloved but wild fellow everybody soley missed).

But San Francisco began to work its magic and I could tell Bill was falling in love with his new home. One day he asked me what it means if a guy wears one earring….and he wanted to know, what does it mean if he wears it on the left versus the right ear….You know, I knew the answer but I just couldn’t remember so we had a good laugh, me terribly flustered the whole time, wishing I could give him the definitive cultural explanation—but he got the idea.

Another time it was Bill’s day off when he called me at the office. His voice sounded shaky; he told me he had just been through a terrifying experience. Bill had gone to purchase some items at a discount store when a robber with a gun ordered all of the patrons to lie down on the floor, and he was one of them—thoughts racing through his mind as he heard "and don’t move or I’ll shoot”.

Hard as I tried, I couldn't imagine Bill in that situation.

After I went on a whale watching trip, sailing out of Pillar Point Harbor, here on the Coastside, I wrote a story called, “Watching Whale Parts”. Why did I give it that title? Because that’s all I saw from the boat, parts of whales, never the entire mammal. I asked Bill to read it and he liked the story, calling it “surreal”, and encouraging me to submit it to a publication.

Bill Doerner was a terrific writer, admired in the news bureau as one of the first to write about the AIDS epidemic in the City.

His stay in San Francisco was brief and one day he returned to the Time-Life Building in New York City. I can’t say that I kept in regular contact with Bill, but every couple of years, or so, I’d send a Christmas card with an update. I was both pleased and surprised that he always answered my notes, usually with a one-page typed letter—and he always showed interest in my writing.

In the spring of 1994, a decade after I worked for him, Bill completely rearrange his life. “…I am currently a person of leisure,” he wrote, “with more reading on my hands….The late nights and deadlines, as well as a changing corporate atmosphere since the merger, finally began taking their toll.”

After 27 years with Time he had taken an early retirement.

And of the future: “I’m planning to pretty much take the summer off in East Hampton, where I have a weekend place, and then decide where to try to go from here—a part-time job, perhaps, or free-lancing?? I just don’t know at this point.”

The next Christmas he wrote, ” I’m still thoroughly enjoying post-TIME life,” adding that , “Mostly I’m doing things I never had time to do over the years, like gardening at my weekend place out on Long Island. I’ve also done a bit of free-lance writing. But nothing major.”

I didn’t send another card until after 9/11. When I received his response, the first thing I noticed was a different return address. Not New York, but Missouri. Also this short note wasn’t typed but handwritten.

He said that my letter caught up with him "in St. Louis (or a suburb of) where I grew up and to which I have retired to live. I left N.Y. just three days before the WTC tragedy…..”

A year or so passed, and I remembered that I had taken photographs of Bill at a San Francisco restaurant where the news bureau staff was celebrating his birthday. I now owned a scanner. I could blow up the old prints, I thought, and he might get a kick out of seeing them. Maybe he never even saw them before. I mailed the best of the pictures to Bill's Missouri address but this time there was no response.

It didn't go unnoticed.

In March a letter arrived from Bill Doerner’s sister. She wrote: “…My brother had been in declining health for the past six or seven years. His heart just gave out. I thought you would want to be aware of his death.” She had no idea who I was but she referred to the photos I had sent, adding that she didn’t know if her brother had seen the pictures.

I hope he did.

William (“Bill”) R. Doerner
Date of Birth: January 31, 1941
Date of Death: March 15, 2003