My history with Bill
I first spoke to Bill at an obscure, now closed, outdoor fabric store in Beaverton shortly after I moved to Portland in the mid 90's. I needed fleece to make headbands and mittens; he needed coated nylon to make custom snow gaiters. Perhaps we recognized each other from Portland's 'City-wide' Infectious Disease conference or had crossed paths through Tony Marfin; regardless we nodded then discussed our sewing and began to bond over do-it-yourself, custom, projects. The setting, a fabric store, is a metaphor for the universe of possibilities; it holds the raw material, the potential projects can not be numbered.
Years later, he and Elise joined Ann, my wife, and I plus our infant first-born sun for an al fresco burrito dinner on the decaying deck of the 1905 tear-down we had purchased in Westmoreland. Between bites, Bill noted that 'if you worked for us, you could take the (recently completed) Springwater bike path to work'. Two years later, I landed a job on the 7th floor of the Portland State Office Building as an expert in bioterrorism; in fact my goal was to work and learn with Bill and the rest of the communicable disease gang.
I answered the phones for a few months and was introduced to a life characterized by meetings in stuffy conference rooms. Life became more interesting when in July of 04 rumors began to circulate one day of ill teens who had swum in Blue Lake. Bill seemed overly excited by such news- I was unaware of his first New England Journal paper about a Shigella/E.coli O157 outbreak in the same stagnant suburban lake- and I came along for the ride in his wake. By that evening we had purchased four 5 gallon water jugs at Andy and Bax, driven to the lake, and collected water from the, now closed, swimming area. At sunset, Bill convinced Mike Skeels the lab director to meet us so we could store our 'specimen' in a cooler while we decided how it could be tested. By the end of the weekend we had completed a case-control study and not one, not two, but three separate cohort studies demonstrating that the only risk factor for illness was exposure to lake water in general and swimming with one's head underwater in particular. We conducted the door to door neighborhood cohort study in the company of my wife and three children under the age of 2! Much debate over the duration of swimming prohibition followed made moot by the unseasonably cool weather that kept people out of the water. Regardless, once the beach reopened for swimming we enrolled bathers in an active surveillance program and documented their lack of subsequent illness. Did this effort save any lives? probably not. Did it change practice? Well, it showed that the routine lake monitoring done at Blue Lake was of no value for this 'norwalk' outbreak, that two week was long enough for the bug to dissipate and that 20 gallons was not a large enough sample to identify noro. Did it demonstrate good government? It demonstrated passion, dedication, and curiosity that, when applied similarly to spinach, almond, sprouts, and strawberries lead to more dramatic improvement in health protection. From my view, it also inspired and taught a new 'disease detective' how to approach situations full throttle and to gather information using as many traditional and off-the-wall approaches as possible.
Bill is a colorful character who exuded so much energy into the atmosphere that I feel like he is still here. My enduring images of him include:
Leaning way back in his office chair, chewing on a few obscurely sourced dry tea leaves, and pontificating on the subject at hand
Clever use of the mute button during conference calls to allow for editorials limited to the company in his office
Cranking up rock from the 60's and 70's after most of the staff had departed the office
Finally, amusing my kids by makng pencils disappear in his huge beard- today they argued whether he could hide 10 or 20; maybe the answer is countless