Friends recall Gwilliam's life of community service

September 09, 2002 12:00 am
Bill Gwilliam ().
Bill Gwilliam ().

By CHRIS COLLINS

Of the Baker City Herald

George "Bill" Gwilliam, a longtime church and community leader who served 10 years as mayor of Baker City, died Friday of cancer. He was 74.

"He was a good man, a good public servant and a good church man," said his longtime friend Doug Smurthwaite.

Smurthwaite played football in high school with Gwilliam, who was two years his senior.

"Bill had a '35 Chevy in high school," he recalled. "It was a popular car and he was a popular student."

Ralph Giles, another longtime friend and neighbor, recalled that Gwilliam was so popular that a downtown department store gave him clothes to encourage other young people to do business there.

"They knew if he wore them, they'd come in and buy them," he said.

Gwilliam was born in Baker City and, after leaving for a time, his family moved back to Baker City in 1942 when his father, George Stanford Gwilliam, joined his uncle, Joe Gwilliam, in operating Gwilliam Brothers Bakery, his family members said. Bill joined the business at the age of 14, driving the bakery truck, greasing bread pans and packing bread shipments. He was issued a driver's license early to allow him to drive the bakery truck, which he did all during his high school years.

After nearly 46 years in the family business, Gwilliam worked for Chet Smith Motors for a short time after the bakery was sold. He then became a Farmer's Insurance agent where he developed his own office. He continued working there until he retired at the age of 65.

The work ethic he developed during his early years stayed with him throughout his life, Smurthwaite said.

"He was a hardworking man and devoted to whatever he was doing," he said.

His church and his family were foremost in his life, he added. He and his wife, Dorene, were married in 1948. They had two daughters, Carl Christensen of Shelley, Idaho, and Georgene Doster of Salt Lake City.

"In the church he was one of the greatest guys in the world," he said.

Gwilliam served as bishop of the 1st Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for 11 years from about 1965 to 1977. Giles served as his counselor.

"He was a very good man as bishop," Giles said. "He has just been a good person to serve as far as the church was concerned and as far as the community was concerned."

Giles and Gwilliam also were morning swimming partners. They took hour-long swims five days a week from 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. year round at Sam-O Swim Center.

Gwilliam was an ardent Brigham Young University fan and was watching the team play a televised football game when he died, Giles said.

Smurthwaite also remembers his friend for his well-known sense of humor.

"He was a fun guy to be around. He always made people feel good," Smurthwaite said. "He had a great sense of humor. We're gonna miss him."

Although he had been plagued by health problems for the past several years, he wasn't one to complain, Smurthwaite said.

"He was a lot better man than I'll ever be, I'll tell you that," he said.

Gwilliam was active in many community service organizations, including the Rotary Club of which he was a charter member. He had served on the Citizens Review Board and helped organize the Court Appointed Special Advocate program (CASA) and served as the organization's board chairman for several years.

He also had served on the hospital board, the Baker County Council on Alcohol and Drug Problems board and was a lifelong supporter of the chamber of commerce. He had served as host for several Rotary and American Field Service foreign exchange students.

Gwilliam served on the Baker City Council from 1967 to 1971, from 1973 to 1989 and again from 1994 to 1996, according to city records. He was city mayor from 1979 to 1989. When a replacement was needed to serve an unexpired term in 1998, Gwilliam was appointed to finish out the year in the position.

His strong work ethic also was reflected in his service to the community, said Tim Collins, city attorney.

"He was always willing to help and always willing to serve," Collins said. "He was always willing to do anything you asked."

Karen Woolard, who was employed by the city from 1972 to 1998, including the last three years as city manager, remembers Gwilliam as her favorite mayor over the years.

"He was very congenial," she said. "He sincerely liked people and he sincerely wanted to help them.

"He was just a sweetheart of a man," she said. "I think the whole community is going to miss him."