To many, William Peter Nicholl was “The Bread Man,” who, from the trunk of his cars, doled out donated loaves of day-old bread to whoever wanted or needed a loaf, to friends, neighbors and strangers, including residents of a women’s shelter. Santa Rosa Press Democrat writer Chris Smith even wrote a column about Bill’s generosity. At other times afterward, Bill was “The Egg Man” and “The Flower Man,” giving cartons of donated eggs or bouquets of flowers to friends, neighbors and strangers.
At most times in the later years of his life, Bill was a friend to just about anyone he would meet, wherever he would meet them, often at the Safeway on Fourth Street in Santa Rosa, just a few blocks from where he lived. He knew many employees by name. He made them feel, as he did with nearly everyone, as if they were the most important person in the world.
With a gleam in his eye, usually cast at women attractive to him, and with a quip on his lips, Bill’s usually cheerful personality and genuine respect for others was his calling card, from his early days in New York City to his final days at Broadway Villa Post Acute in Sonoma, where he died June 26. He was 94 and had been in failing health for several months.
Bill was born in Teaneck, New Jersey, on Sept. 12, 1928, the son of William Nicholl, an English merchant marine and house painter, and Beatrice Nicholl (nee McCarthy), an Irish immigrant also called Bridget, a devout Catholic and homemaker.
Raised in the Bronx, a child of the Great Depression, Bill began working at age 12 in an automat, earning 38 cents per hour. He also shined shoes to earn additional cash, and played pool with friends during his off hours. Bill was a fan of the New York Giants baseball team. He attended Bronx Vocational High School and loved to frequent jazz clubs in Manhattan. In an interview several years ago, he recalled, “We used to see Jake LaMotta (the world middleweight boxing champion from 1949 to 1951) in the neighborhood.”
Bill lied about his age to enlist in the Navy in October 1945, shortly after World War II combat operations ended. He completed basic training at Camp Peary, near Williamsburg, Virginia. He also served during the Korean War era. For part of his 11-year naval career, eventually reaching the rank of petty officer second class, Bill served as a helmsman on the USS Brownson, a Navy destroyer, steering it on the high seas and into ports around the world, from China and India to Italy and Egypt to Saudi Arabia and Great Britain, among many other countries.
In 1957, he ended his military service, working as a master-at-arms, responsible for security and law enforcement, at the U.S. Naval Air Station at Moffett Field in Mountain View. Bill was honorably discharged with a service-related disability. He was awarded medals and decorations for World War II Victory, American Defense, National Defense Service, Korean Service, and Good Conduct. He noted that President Truman proclaimed the formal end of WW II hostilities on Dec. 31, 1946, so Bill was, technically, a WW II veteran.
It was at Moffett Field that he met and married his second wife, Rosemary Yost, in 1956. For a time afterward, they lived in Santa Margarita and settled in Shell Beach in San Luis Obispo County. In 1960 they adopted a son, Billy. In 1962 Rosemary gave birth to their daughter, Rosemary, aka Rosie, and died the next day.
During that time in San Luis Obispo County, Bill worked as a correctional officer at the California Men’s Colony. He met his third wife, Mildred Shadinger, in 1962, in San Luis Obispo.
Bill worked as a correctional officer for seven years. He and Mildred, to whom he was married for 13 years, also owned a pizza and beer parlor and a hamburger restaurant. They also owned apartments and two homes in San Luis Obispo. They sold the businesses and moved to Lake County in 1975. Millie, as she was also called, wanted to return to San Luis Obispo and moved there. Bill left Lake County in the late 1970s.
In 1978 he moved to Santa Rosa and retired, but not for long. He then moved to Reno for three years, and, during that time, worked as a house sitter and security officer. In the mid-1980s, he moved to Fair Oaks and lived there for a couple of years. He later returned to Santa Rosa, living in the Vigil Light Apartments complex for more than 35 years, and, while there, traveled widely, took ocean cruises, enjoyed dancing and socializing. He visited Ireland five times.
“He loved to jitterbug,” a type of swing dance, recalled longtime friend Dena Benway. “It was amazing. He was 81 years old at the time and he was able to jitterbug.”
In 2001, he received a merit award as a “Community Services Individual” from the City of Santa Rosa.
“I like that he was always thinking about helping others,” added Benway.
For much of his life and particularly in his final years, Bill read widely, especially history books, and could cite statistics, dates, names and outcomes that would impress a professional historian. He relished Big Band music and attended musical theater productions from time to time in San Francisco. Among his favorites were “Oklahoma!” and “Hamilton.”
Throughout his later years around town, Bill could be seen often wearing dark blue Navy caps that read, in gold lettering, “USS Brownson DD-868” or “Tin Can Sailors/ U.S. Navy Destroyer Veterans.” Occasionally he would travel to reunions to reminisce with his fellow Navy servicemen.
Bill was a longtime member of Alcoholics Anonymous, working the 12 Steps and enjoying the fellowship and friendships. He achieved more than 35 years of sobriety, and his testimonies at AA meetings were an inspiration to many.
Another longtime friend, Tom Riley said: “Bill left a endearing impression on all of my family members through his service for individuals in recovery. He was a beloved fixture at many (AA) meetings in the Santa Rosa area, always bringing lots of wonderful pastries and his joyful outlook on life. When Bill passed there were many awaiting him on the other side to welcome him into the next life with love and joy.”
Bill married three times and was predeceased by his wives, including his first wife, Hilda, by three brothers, and by son Billy, who died in a hunting accident. He is survived by his daughter, grandchildren and numerous nieces and nephews.
A memorial service, with military honors, and celebration of Bill’s life will be from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. July 14 at Lafferty & Smith Colonial Chapel, 4321 Sonoma Highway (Highway 12), Santa Rosa. It will include visitations from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., with recitation of the rosary at 1 p.m., followed by the service at 1:30 p.m., with fellowship and more visitations until 5 p.m.
A memorial Mass for Bill will be celebrated at 11 a.m. July 17 in St. Eugene’s Cathedral, 2323 Montgomery Drive, in Santa Rosa.
Burial, next to wife Rosemary, will be at 11 a.m. July 21 at the Atascadero Cemetery in Atascadero.
For those who wish, donations may be made in Bill’s memory to Alcoholics Anonymous General Service Office, 475 Riverside Drive at West 120 St., 8th and 11th floors, New York, NY 10115; to the Wounded Warrior Project, 4899 Belfort Road, suite 300, Jacksonville, FL 32256; or to a favorite charity.