“He was one of those people who, the minute you met him, you knew you were special,” said Patty Bristow, Bill’s wife of 14 years. “That’s just the way he was.”
Bill Bristow, educator, family man and late-in-life track star, died of cancer Sunday at his home in Brentwood, surrounded by family and friends. He was 73.
“He was one of the most admired and beloved members of the community, a man who was one of the people responsible for making many of the good parts of Brentwood what they are today, not just in education but throughout the community with everyone and everything his was a part of,” said longtime friend Emil Geddes. “I am in awe.”
One of eight surviving children of an Oklahoma sharecropper, Bristow and his family piled into a Model A Ford and came to California to escape the Dust Bowl in 1936. He lived in a dirt-floor house, and worked at various jobs before graduating from Liberty High School. He earned a masters degree at San Francisco State and began his career in education in Knightsen. He started as an eighth-grade teacher and, at age 27, became the youngest district superintendent in California history.
After five years, he moved over to the Liberty Union High School District, where he helped develop curricula for Liberty and other local school districts. His next move would be to the Brentwood elementary school district, where he served as a principal for two years before becoming superintendent. It was a post he would hold for 25 years.
In 1991, Bristow was diagnosed with an aggressive form of skin cancer. He endured years of chemotherapy, radiation, experimental drugs and therapies that, at one point, burned away all the skin, hair and nails on his body. It was a long-denied desire to run track, however, that might have been the most important treatment he received.
“I truly believe Hugo gave him his last eight years by starting him running,” Patty said of Dr. Hugh Maiocco, a former Pan American Olympic Gold Medalist who became Bill’s coach and dear friend.
“We did a lot of walking, talking and running,” Maiocco said. “He was genuinely interested in what you had to say. He was never self-serving; he was about what the other person wants.”
Bristow took second place at the USA National Senior Championships in 1995, although just how fast he was running had never been important.
“Whenever someone asked his time, he would say he didn’t know,” Maiocco said. “He’d say, ‘We just practice running fast. It’s about enjoying running.’ Workouts were a metaphor for our friendship – we never focused on what we couldn’t do; we let the workout tell us what we could do, just like the magic of our friendship.”
Whether convincing a college graduate to return to Brentwood to teach, sharing his love of language or telling the story of his battle with cancer, Bristow unceasingly worked to better his community and its people.
“Bill Bristow was an extraordinary example of a homegrown person who gave of himself to his community – and more importantly, supported the young youth of Brentwood through his dedication and caring ways,” Mayor Bob Taylor said Tuesday. “He will always be remembered in the hearts and minds of this city as a true and dedicated educator.”
For many, Bristow’s thumbs-up attitude toward life was his most telling attribute. “He inspired us all to be positive and take life each day at a time,” said Peggie Schuitemaker. “His love for life and Patty was clearly obvious and radiated from his beautiful smile.”
In spite of her husband’s accomplishments in the fields of education and athletics, Patty said it was Bill’s family that meant the most to him. “His proudest accomplishments were his children: Merri, Judi, David and Arianna,” she said.
Asked what he thought Bill’s legacy would be, Maiocco at first struggled a bit. His friend’s willingness to share his story with others might be part of it, he said, not as bragging but because “he could help someone else, set them on the right path, give them hope.” In the end, though, it was much simpler than that.
“He cared,” Maiocco said. “He really cared.”
Bill Bristow is survived by his wife Patty, children Merrideth Godfrey, Judith Arata, David Bristow and Arianna Serna, all of California; and grandchildren Phillip and Nicholas Arata and Abbigale Bristow.
Visitation will take place Friday, April 24 from 3 to 8 p.m. at the Brentwood Funeral Home, 839 First St. Services will be held Saturday, April 25 at 1 p.m. at St. Anne Church, 2800 Camino Diablo in Byron.
(Click here) for a July, 2007 story about Bristow's running, his philosophy and his friend, Hugh Maiocco.
(Click here) for an autobiographical article written by Bill for the Sept./Oct. 2008 edition of 110 Magazine (Courtesy of Don Huntington).