Bill Choate, the best grandpa in the world, passed away on October 17th with his daughter at his bedside. He was 76.
At the age of one, Bill moved to Homer with his parents and four older siblings. The year was 1947, when Homer was a much smaller and more isolated community. He was the fifth of what would eventually be eight kids. With few economic opportunities, and even fewer fellow Native families, the time and place in which he grew up demanded resilience, courage, and self-reliance; he had all three.
Bill found early success working on fishing boats. His mechanical inclination and strong work ethic helped him advance until he was eventually operating boats in fisheries all over Alaska, and transporting boats from as far away as the East Coast. His sense of adventure, propensity to take risks, and ability to work well under pressure kept him in the industry, but the rewards were uneven.
The birth of his daughter, Colette, in 1983 would reorganize his priorities. With the goal of spending the winters at home, Bill focused his fishing career exclusively on fisheries close to Homer. As profits permitted, he reinvested in boats that were more competitive. Over the winter of 1991-92 Bill built the Inupiat. The boat was fast, modern, quiet, efficient, and, of critical importance to him, suitable for children.
Bill was a committed, caring, and intentional parent. He blended structure and stability with the opportunity to experience the wonder of childhood with Colette. He rowed them both out to the green can to be barked at by a hauled out sea lion. He taught her how to ride a unicycle. He built her a treehouse complete with foam insulation and electricity. He didn’t regularly raise his voice, and apologized when he did. He believed she could do anything, and told her that often.
In spite of his difficult past — perhaps because of it — he was empathetic, sensitive, and compassionate. He hired people who needed second chances, lent money unconditionally, handed out $100 bills to homeless people on Christmas, and always rooted for the underdog. He believed that people were inherently good, and that no one was beyond redemption.
Bill’s commitment to personal growth is notable. In the 90s, Bill began taking creative and personal writing classes. Writing would become one of the most transformative tools Bill had to process his experiences. He would go on to share some of his pieces at community events and in other public forums. Sharing his work facilitated his own healing, fostered connections, and in some instances promoted community introspection.
In the mid-2000s Bill retired from commercial fishing and combined his interests and strengths to build the Puk-uk, a custom charter boat. He would go on to spend the next 13 summers exploring the Alaskan coastline with scientists, history buffs, bird watchers, and ecotourists who shared his adventurous spirit and were awed by his local knowledge. From building a crow’s nest for a film crew, to conducting poetry readings at the galley table, Bill worked hard to give his clients the custom trip they designed along with unexpected perks and experiences. The Puk-uk was a true culmination of Bill’s maritime expertise, curiosity of the natural world, and his ability to forge and facilitate human connections.
Bill approached his cancer diagnosis like every other barrier he had encountered throughout his life; he kept going. The eight years he lived with cancer were also among his best and included the birth of his granddaughter Sienna, who brought joy, wonder, and healing. He turned wooden spoons, old scarves, and dry beans into activities. He took her on bike rides so long that they would end with naps in the grass, helmets still on. He read her stories until they both fell asleep, nestled against one another.
In his final year he faced his cancer with courage. Friends from near and far, past and present, formed a remarkable, loving community around him. Bill is remembered and missed by the family he was born into and the family he created. May he continue to live on in the stories we share and the imprints he left on those who knew and loved him.
A celebration of life will be held at Land’s End on June 3rd. Details will be forthcoming on the memorial website Ever Loved. In lieu of flowers, please consider making a donation in his name to one of the local organizations he most admired, South Peninsula Haven House.