Reframing Aging - Focus on bill French
by Cynthia Overbeck Bix. Photos by Nancy Rubin
"One of the most important things for me is to have a dream, and to follow my dream."
1926 - 2018
Career: Chevron refinery engineer; community builder and volunteer
Bill passed away in March 2018 at the age of 91. Behind his modest, affable manner was a dynamic community builder and organizer with definite ideas about how to improve every situation he encountered. With his wife Tari, he was an early and active member of Ashby Village. Bill was also an active volunteer and leader at his church. Following are some of the thoughts about aging that he expressed during an interview in 2017.
Interests: Community builder and volunteer for multiple organizations
Career: Chevron refinery engineer
Bill French is a man who has plenty of dreams and ideas. And more importantly, he has always had the drive and ability to turn his ideas into concrete changes.
When we spoke with Bill in 2016, he displayed a continuing energy and enthusiasm that was inspiring. Following are some of the thoughts he shared with us.
I worked as a refinery engineer for Chevron for thirty-five years. In my last job for them I was travelling out of state 3 to 6 months a year for 17 years. I had to drop everything else I was doing during those years. I quit when I was 55. I had to retire early to make up for lost time!
On making a difference
I have a dream that animates most of what I do. My dream is that things can always be better. How the dream is embodied specifically depends on the situation. Wherever I find myself, I like to see how I can try and improve something.
For example, my wife Tari and I have been members of Epworth Methodist Church in Berkeley for 55 years now. The church has given me a good format for trying a lot of new things.
Epworth was where I was very active after my retirement—during my 60s and 70s. I was always starting things. If things weren’t the way I thought they should be, I’d try to organize another committee, or another activity, start something new. One thing I started was a Stephen Ministry program. The Stephen Ministry trains lay caregivers to provide confidential care to people who are going through difficult times. I took the training, and we got a ministry going at Epworth. We’re still going 25 years later.
Before I got active at Epworth, I was an assistant Scout Master for 10 years, and I coached Little League. I’m an ex-jock. As a student, I pitched for the University of Washington. And I played a lot of softball, basketball, and volleyball, up until I was 40 or so. Then I eased off playing and started coaching Little League, as well as organizing church softball and basketball teams.
So much is based on having a good, sound community. To have community, you have to get together in groups. The group is not necessarily the end in itself, but you need it as a base to operate from. Then you can go in all sorts of different directions.
Good teams—whether they’re sports teams or organizational committees—have a sense of wholeness and community. People look out for each other. They care for each other and the team as a whole, not just about their own accomplishments.
In the Little League teams I coached, I used those same principles. They apply to any group you’re working with—a better sports team, a better office, a better project, a better church—or a better Ashby Village!
On new horizons
I have my own “stage” theory of life. You move through different stages, and in each stage, there are things you can do better at that point than you could do before or after. I don’t go abruptly from one stage to the next—I get into it gradually, as things start to work out. I rarely know when I’m starting on a new stage or a new work. You have to stay open and look around you.
At most of life’s stages, things change in ways that you can’t anticipate. For example, Ashby Village suddenly appeared in my life. I was halfway through my 80s when I realized this was the next thing.
At 80, I had to pull back from a lot of my activities at Epworth. I was getting older, and I didn’t feel I could run the activities and committees the way they ought to be run.
Then two years later, it happened that our old friend Bob Davis, who’s on the board of Ashby Village, invited us to come up to his house for a Living Room Chat. That was the first time I ever heard about the village movement. I got so excited! I couldn’t wait to join. Tari and I joined when they first started up, and we’ve been involved ever since.
As a society, we’re recognizing that seniors are the fastest growing demographic. At 90, I’m at the older end of the demographic. And what are we going to do with all these older people? There are no good models. So it’s up to us to start doing something about it.
This is what the village movement is about. How do you help seniors age in place? All the surveys say that 90% want to age at home, but 90% end up aging in retirement centers or institutions of some kind. Ashby Village provides a perfect opportunity to see what we can do for ourselves to change things.