A Tribute to Billy O.Wireman

Friday, May 18, 2007, 4:15 PM

I owe my entire Eckerd College career to Billy. He was my mentor, my friend, my pal. I am deeply honored to be on a program to pay tribute to Billy O. Wireman.

Billy was the most daring of men! He was bold and confident. He was a pilot, coach, husband, father, historian, writer, Dean, Vice President and President. But to me, the characteristic which best defined him, was his winning personality. I have a couple of personal stories.

Billy walked out of the President's office one day and a volunteer was sitting in the reception area of the Upham Administration Building preparing labels for envelopes. "How are you, dear lady?" asked Billy.  "I am fine," she said, "but the working conditions here must change." Billy replied, "I am going to cut your time in half and double your pay." "Oh, thank you Dr.Wireman! That's decisive action!"

Billy could use the word "pal" several different ways. He could greet you with, "Hello, Pal," or if he disagreed he would say, "I am not sure about that, Pal." Or, to make a strong point he would say, "That's not the way we do things here, PAL."

During my second summer down here, my mother came to visit us and, since she was a pillar in the Presbyterian Church of Perry, Georgia, she had a keen interest in Florida Presbyterian College. Billy came over one night to see how recruiting was going. I informed him, "Not well." We had just lost our best basketball player. We had awarded all the aid he was legally eligible for, but it wasn't enough. He was $150 short. We were moaning about the rules. Billy said, "Jimmy, is Goodness involved here?"

"Of course," I replied. "He is an excellent student, our best player, and he is Presbyterian!"

"Well, I'll tell you what we will do since Goodness is involved. You get him $75 dollars from your budget, and I will do the same."

My mother had been listening from the other room. She said, "If it’s wrong, it’s wrong and Goodness has nothing to do with it." She even said she was sure Bill Kadel wouldn't approve of this activity. Billy assured her he would not let her son do anything wrong. A week later, Billy and Katie came over.  When Mary Alice went to the door. I heard a familiar voice: "Is Jimmy’s mother still here?"

Bob Stewart,  a longtime friend of Billy's said Billy could shift gears better than anyone he knew. He could go from faculty, to students, to alums, to trustees with ease.

The great Newsweek writer, Jerry Footlick, described Billy as  "having the throttle wide open on the motorboat." Actually, I met Jerry Footlick once when he came here to interview me for a book he was writing about Queens and Billy Wireman. I met for a couple of hours with Jerry and answered his questions. About three months later Billy called me from Charlotte: "Jimmy, that stuff is going to be in a book!" I tried to downplay it by saying it was all true. His response was, "I know it's true but it is going to be published!"

Richard Rankin, a Queens colleague, once said "Billy created excitement, he was ambitious and this was his "genius".

He was a major player in getting Bill, Ken, and Jack Eckerd on board, and they made generous donations in the early years. Trustee Bob Sheen chaired the search committee to name a new President. He said, "Billy's enthusiasm and high energy level was just what we needed."

Billy introduced me to the greatest people I have ever known: Like
Pedro Trakas
Bob Meacham
Bill Wilbur
Otis, Ashby, Burr, Jack Bevan
Bill Kadel
Bill O’Neill
Bob Sheen
Frank Hubbard
Pinky Bach
Marty and John Wallace
Jack Eckerd
Bill Hough
Ken and Iggy
Tom, Fred, Howard, Clark, Henry, Stan, Les
Hunter Blakely
Bob Hodgell
John Jacobson
and the list goes on.
Even to Dr. Eastman and Lloyd Chapin.

Once, when he was President here, I went to him late in the summer to ask for some money for a student athlete, since all our aid was gone. His reply sounded familiar, "That's not the way we do things around here, PAL!"

I knew he would forgive me for asking -- since I had forgiven him for taking me to Professor Dan Zaret's house, once, to listen to Russian poetry for an hour and a half.

Going to Final Fours together was a trip. But nothing at all like the trip in Billy's plane to the Bahamas, where we landed and bounced 150 yards down the runway with Dr. Wireman yelling, "Yippee!"

The Dedication of the McArthur Center was a big day. When the donor, Charles McArthur, went over for a walkthrough about 6:30 a.m., he asked the custodian if he knew why there were no bleachers. The custodian said, "The man who gave us the building didn't have enough money for bleachers."  Before 8:00 a.m., Mr. McArthur had told Billy to order bleachers -- he would pay. It was just an honest error by the custodian. Billy thought, however, that Goodness was involved.

Billy’s influence on me was enormous. Katie, Gary, and Emily were not only our neighbors but our friends. We cherish the days when our children were young. Mary Alice and I came to St Pete in early May of 1963, house hunting, and Katie and Billy took us to the Division dinner at Bill Wilbur's home. Dr. Wilbur greeted me with a question: "Baptist or Presbyterian punch?" I answered, "Presbyterian, of course," not realizing it was spiked! No one ever became socially aware quite the same way. I had to sit down; my head was spinning. On one side of me was native German, Emil Kauder, speaking broken English; on the other side was Sonia Hammady, native Lebanese, speaking another language. When Billy proudly introduced me as the new coach, I couldn’t stand up.

It was an exciting time when Billy was named President. We had a party at the Trakas home. Naturally, it was a downer when he announced he was stepping down. But, in typical Wireman spirit, he assembled all of us in Dendy McNair Auditorium and proclaimed Eckerd College was going to be all right.

Billy was named to the University of Kentucky Hall of Fame. He was named Man of the Year in Charlotte.

When I asked Rich Miller, the fabulous athlete from the first four years of the College and our first inductee into the Athletic Hall of Fame, about his special relationship with Billy, he said that Billy always made him feel as if he was the most important person in the world.

Billy provided opportunities for people. He was as he refers to others in his latest book, "a servant leader," strong, independent, energetic, intelligent and caring. He is among the best of several "giants" in this College's history.

This chapel is being dedicated today to honor Billy O. Wireman, who genuinely enjoyed students, who made a difference in the lives of others, who combined leadership with service, and who made everyone around him better. We dedicate this wonderful chapel to Billy because Goodness is involved.

James R. Harley
Professor Emeritus