William “Bill” Taylor
On Monday, William “Bill” Taylor, who moved to San Anselmo with his family in 1968 and worked with high school students from 1975 to 2017, died on Monday. He was 88 years old. Although the complications of Lewy body dementia limited his mobility in the last months of his life, Bill still wrote weekly newsletters for his students until his death.
Born in 1933 to Mary Hager – one of the earliest graduates of Pomona College – and her pilot William Taylor, Bill and his younger brother Harold grew up in the San Fernando Valley. One of Bill’s earliest memories was that his father took him to the newly completed Los Angeles Coliseum, where he ran around on the track after dark. In 1943, Bill’s father died in an airplane crash while training pilots for the war near Newhall, California. Unable to care for her children, Mary temporarily took Bill and Harold to the Hollygrove Orphanage, later made famous by Marilyn Monroe. Eventually Mary found a job and an apartment, brought her boys home, and raised them in Toluca Lake, California. Attracted by athletics, the two brothers played sports whenever they could.
As Bill’s career clicked at Valley Junior College in 1952, something clicked and his time began to decline. In 1953, he topped the field in the 880-yard run at the LA Coliseum Relays and received scholarship offers from the best track and field programs in the country. Bill chose the USC Trojans national champion.
For the next two years he trained and competed with the best of the best. His teammates included future Olympians Jim Lea, Des Koch and Max Truex. At USC, Bill never lost a Pac-8 dual meet race, and the team won two other national championships.
He once shared the Co-Athlete of the Week title with Olympian Rafer Johnson in the Los Angeles Times. Bill later managed to beat Cal world record holder Lon Spurrier. Coach emeritus Dean Cromwell suggested going to the Olympics and breaking the world record. But two weeks before the trial session, he sustained an injury and was unable to qualify.
After college, Bill became an officer in the Marines. In Quantico, Virginia, he kept running, playing rabbits for famous American Miler Wes Santee – a fellow Marine – at venues like Madison Square Garden. But his competitive running career was over.
Then in 1958 Bill began to think about religion. As the grandson of Swiss missionaries, he began to wonder whether ministering might be the greatest profession in life. Bill enrolled at the San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo and joined a generation of Presbyterians who believed that the divinity of Jesus was manifested in his conduct as an ordinary person. Bill married Jeanne Standring of Sacramento, California, moved back to Southern California, and had two sons, Jess and Cory. Tragically, however, Jeanne died of a fit in 1965 and Bill was left alone to raise his two sons. He was no longer a pastor, but worked as a high school teacher in the San Fernando Valley.
Shortly thereafter, Bill met and married Patricia Allen – a spirited UCLA graduate with an insatiable appetite for world travel – and the family moved to San Anselmo. While running a business, writing for the Ross Valley Reporter, and engaging in politics (he was Marin’s campaign chairman for RFK and a delegate to the 1968 Democratic Congress), Bill accompanied his new wife on trips to Europe. Something came alive for Taylor overseas. For example, when Bill discovered that the ancient Greeks grappled with the same existential issues that confuse modern society, Bill became obsessed with history. In 1974 he wrote the Athenian Odyssey – a unique travel guide to ancient Athens. But the most important chapter of his life did not come into focus until 1977.
That summer in Athens, Greece, Bill challenged his teenage son Jess to a race at the Panathenaic Stadium. When Jess passed him on the track, Bill was proud to see his son’s emerging skills. When Jess later asked his father to volunteer at (then) Sir Francis Drake High School, Taylor had a realization: he wanted to coach. During the year, Bill not only coached his son, he’d taken on the head coaching job and his women’s mile relay had finished third at the California State Championship in Bakersfield.
To reward the relay and other athletes for their dedication, Taylor promised to take them on a trip to Europe. In the summer of 1979, the first group of Bill’s newly inspired sports club, Arete West, flew to Switzerland and Paris for 5 weeks. There, Arete students competed against host clubs in track meetings, lived in hostels, and traveled around to visit the historical sites they had studied in the months prior to the trip.
Over the next 38 years, Taylor took over 150 students on 20 Arete trips to destinations in Europe and the Middle East. Arete was in East Berlin before the fall of the Berlin Wall; behind the Iron Curtain before the end of the Cold War; and in Cairo shortly after the Arab Spring. In 2017, Bill led his last Arete trip to Europe before retiring from coaching with Sir Francis Drake.
In 2003, Bill was inducted into the Marin County Athletic Hall of Fame for coaching. He went on to write two more books, Igniting the Flame and The Greatest Classrooms of the World. In 2018 he received the Mensch Prize for educating Arete students about the Holocaust and visiting concentration camps in Poland, Germany and Austria.
During the last decades of his life, Bill continued to watch the Olympics with great enthusiasm, attending the Los Angeles, Atlanta and Athens Games. He is survived by his two sons Jess and Cory, grandson Liam – a post graduate in Washington DC – and hundreds of former students and athletes who will never forget the impact he had on their lives.
Published by the San Francisco Chronicle October 8-10, 2021.