Bill Stall, 1937-2008

Publication Year: 2009.

Bill Stall 1937–2008

In 1977 Bill Stall and I were climbing a 5.7 route on Crystal Crag, a granite pinnacle near Mammoth Crest in the Sierra. As we ascended, shining above us like a beacon to the heavens was a giant, car-sized crystal near the summit. In late October 2008 I revisited Crystal Crag, and the sight of that crystal brought back memories of our climb over 30 years before. So I called Bill on October 31 to see how he was doing.

Bill matter-of-factly told me that his emphysema and heart disease were bad, and he did not have too many days to live. Shocked and saddened, I recounted my recent visit to Crystal Crag and our climb of many years ago. He recalled that he could still see that white crystal beckoning us as we climbed. Then he had to ring off to take another call. He died on November 2, before we could talk again.

So, Bill, here is what the rest of our conversation would have been: I recall when I first met you in 1976 in Los Angeles, shortly after you left Sacramento, where you worked for the Associated Press as a reporter and as Governor Jerry Brown’s Press Secretary. I was an antitrust lawyer for an oil company, and you had joined the Los Angeles Times. You invited my wife and me to a dinner party at your house, and you seated me next to one of your guests, who happened to be Rose Bird, then the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court. When she found out where I worked, she asked me bluntly, “Just what did cause the [1973–1974] oil crisis?” I could see that you were highly amused to be a spectator to the titanic war of words that followed.

You were born in Philadelphia on February 21, 1937, and in 1942 you moved with your parents to a ranch in Big Horn, Wyoming. After a short stint at the University of Pennsylvania, you graduated from the University of Wyoming, majoring in journalism, and you spent almost 50 years in that field, first with the Laramie Daily Boomerang, then with the AP in Reno, and from 1966 to 1974 as AP Bureau chief in Sacramento, before working for Governor Brown from 1975 to 1976. (Bill, did Governor Brown really sleep on a mattress on the floor in a one-bedroom apartment near the Capitol rather than in the Governor’s Mansion?)

Your career was capped by two Pulitzer Prizes, the first as part of a spot news team in 1994 for your reporting on the earthquake in Northridge, California, and the second in 2004 for your incisive editorial coverage of problems in California’s government. And you did not just identify the problems—you offered solutions.

As Alison Osius noted in her excellent obituary in Rock and Ice, you were a reporter who was a watchdog voice on environmental issues, on preserving Camp 4 in Yosemite, on minimizing snowmobiling in Yellowstone, and on the Forest Service’s proposed ban on fixed-anchor use in its wilderness areas (and you suggested that I do an op-ed on this issue in the Los Angeles Times, which I did). You started climbing near Sacramento, mostly at Tahoe, Lover’s Leap, and Sugarloaf, in the late 1960s, and you watched and reported on the first ascent of the Dawn Wall on El Capitan by Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell in 1970. You even set the record straight on the rescue effort that the Park Service said the team had requested, noting that the Park Service had overreacted and even lied about who had instigated the rescue. You were Chair of the Southwest Section of the AAC for many years, and an AAC Board member for six years. During this period you chaired a committee studying the long-range plans of the Club, and many of the committee’s recommendations have been followed in the years since.

Bill, I know it embarrasses you for me to go on about you like this, but you deserve the plaudits. As Alison noted, you were calm, thoughtful, and gentlemanly, and you had a true love of the environment and a sharp curiosity about world affairs. As we discussed when we talked just before the November 2008 election, you mailed in an absentee ballot just in case. Unfortunately, you did not live to see Barack Obama elected, but I know you are smiling now.

Your wonderful wife, Ann Baker, your children, and your many friends miss you, Bill. And I will always remember the last thing you said to me before you rang off that day just before you died, about the white crystal beckoning us.

Ted Vaill