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It is with the greatest of sorrow that I share the sad news that Bill Siemer, an A News Cafe.com friend and contributor, died Sunday. He was 72.
When I think of Bill I think of a tall slender man, slightly stooped, with sparkly eyes, a great wide smile and unbridled laugh.
It’s been more than 10 years since I first met Bill over coffee. I was interviewing him for a newspaper story about a picture book of sorts he and a fellow Vietnam veteran had created. Bill had supplied the raw imagery through his poetic words. His friend supplied the art.
At the time, Bill had just finished chemotherapy for leukemia, so he was wearing a knit hat over his bald head. He said the experience was worse than Vietnam for him.
He talked a lot about war, and its untold damage on not just the world, but on the young men and women – kids, really – who are sent to fight.
When I started A News Cafe.com and developed the Photo Cafe, Bill was one of the deputies. (We call them deputies because they are entrusted with the heady responsibility to upload unmoderated photos.)
As a Photo Cafe contributor Bill submitted hundreds of photos, primarily of wildlife. He had an artist’s eye combined with the patience to wait in the brush by the river for just the right moment to capture the perfect image of a bird or a bear or a river otter or a skunk or an eagle.
His photos illustrated his fascination in all aspects of nature, even the seemingly cruel, like a graphic photo of a river otter ripping the flesh of a freshly caught salmon. (Some readers complained the photos were not suitable for viewing while eating.)
Bill’s idea of “wild life” sometimes extended to people, like a few frames he submitted for consideration (but kindly declined) of some homeless people bathing in the river.
His photos were often funny, too, especially when matched with Bill’s headlines.
She has that look in her eye
A News Cafe.com was a better, more interesting, compassionate and informed site because of Bill, a gifted writer, photographer, journalist and observer.
It was 2012 when Bill approached me about a series he wanted to write, “Grabbing God,” in which he would feature stories about rough-around-the-edges people living under society’s radar, such as some men in a Redding half-way house.
It’s warm and all these tattooed men show up for the Tuesday night prayer meeting at the Riverview Church in sleeveless shirts, showing their big arms, their wild and intricate designs of beautiful women, beasts and machinery, most of them done in black. Rico is covered with tats. Says he let anyone draw on him in prison. He has the wildest glare, the biggest smile, the warmest embrace. He is disarmingly, charmingly, open. “I got what was coming to me,” he says.
Then he introduced us to ‘Hank’.
My dad taught us to drink Jack Daniels when we were babies. I grew up preparing to be an alcoholic.” Five or six years ago, his doctor told him he was going to die from liver cancer unless he underwent treatment and changed his life. He went from 165 to 117 pounds in a month. He died several times. His wife, at that time, told him to let it go. He didn’t. “I don’t quit. I don’t stop. I keep going. None of the kids want to work with me. They can’t keep up. I’m not impressive physically. I weigh 135 now. It’s all there is. But they don’t grab a hold of me; want to wrestle me to the ground.”
We met “Scotty” in that series, too.
Scotty’s in the bedroom he shares with five other guys, packing his clothes, colored pencils and a model car into a nylon bag that would fit into an overhead bin. His mind is a blender full of emotions on high. “I’ll be back,” he says. “No I won’t. I’m going to miss the guys; no I’m not. I’m going to her house right now, be there by midnight. I’m going to get a tattoo tomorrow. It will go from my chin, down to my shoulders in a triangle.” What’s it going to say? “God’s Boy,” he laughs. “Or maybe not. I don’t know. I might have a job, detailing cars, I’m not sure. It doesn’t matter. I’ll do anything. I can do what I want. I’m free. I don’t have to ask anymore. I don’t have to ask.”
Bill then tackled one of his most difficult and draining projects, a four-part investigative series, “When Death is Intentional” as a way to shed light on why the north state had such disproportionately high suicide rates.
Neither the community assessment nor the coroner’s office keeps track of the ethnicity of suicides. However, the Indian Health Service, in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, estimates in a recent report that American Indians have an 82 percent higher suicide rate than other Americans.
Veterans kill themselves for many of the same reasons that people in the general population do, primarily “hopelessness,” Kemp said. However, veterans are unique in that they have had exposure to combat and trauma. The number of tours may be related to the likelihood of suicide, due to the “increased opportunity for exposure to traumatic situations,” she said.
I was fortunate to be among the lucky ones to receive one of Bill’s annual calendar “Christmas cards” – made up entirely Bill’s nature photography.
But A News Cafe.com was even more lucky to have Bill as a contributor, because if he was interested in something, we all benefited by his curiosity and subsequent reporting. He wrote about a Kokanee salmon die-off, and why the district attorney didn’t prosecute something as a hate crime. And when he wondered about the proliferation of spiders along the Sacramento River, Bill looked into it and reported his findings on A News Cafe.com.
Naturally theatrical, Bill was an actor who appeared in a number of north state productions. He was also a supporter of fellow performers, which inspired him to write about Shasta College’s “As You Like It” and “The Miracle Worker” – and a feature about local film maker Rene Perez.
An unabashed champion of the underdog, Bill undertook an investigation and story about a Shasta County veteran denied benefits, which resulted in a follow-up story about how the county CEO was looking into the matter.
The paperwork required for a military veteran to file a claim is so complicated that Shasta County created a Veterans Service Office.
In December of last year he emailed me that he was going to be gone for a while to visit his grandchildren. He wanted to meet me and friend Jim Dowling at Starbucks to discuss Bill passing the photography baton to Jim, since Bill wasn’t submitting photos any longer.
We met, and Bill acted as the liaison to ensure that the conclusion of his photography on A News Cafe.com was mitigated by the addition of his good friend Jim Dowling’s photography on this site.
The last piece Bill submitted to A News Cafe.com was in March. It was quintessential Bill: “Monster for a Day”, a story that recounted his experience as an actor in a locally produced horror flick.
On the second take, the fake blood, which has a soap base to allegedly make it easier to remove, hit me in the right eye. My eye started to water, my nose started to run. It was a snotty, bloody sight when we finally pulled the mask off eight takes later. Rene made a face, as if the sight of me, his unpaid, freezing monster, was somehow revolting. My clothes, long-johns and all, were soaked with blood.
I could write another 1450 words and still not aptly express the essence of Bill Siemer. He was fearless and gutsy. He was funny and smart and irreverent. He was an emotional deep-sea diver, someone with seemingly limitless compassion and a well-honed sense of justice. He was tough and tenacious, but he was kind and tenderhearted. The proof was in his writing and photography.
Bill Siemer is gone. But here on A News Cafe.com, he lives on in our hearts, memories and archives. To conjure him up, all we have to do is enter two words in our search bar: Bill Siemer. And there he will be, in all his glory.
Thank you, Bill Siemer. We will remember you.
Memorial Services for Bill Siemer will be held at 2:30 p.m. on Thur., Nov. 17 at the Center for Spiritual Living, 1905 Hartnell Avenue, Redding.
Bill loved the outdoors and would appreciate your loving contributions to the Shasta Land Trust, The Lassen Foundation, Friends of Whiskeytown, or the Nature Conservancy.