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William Russell Robertson

Died: December 1, 1984

Bill (Pitchpipe) Robertson stood at the pinnacle of Yale singing, coming to us from West Pittston (near Scranton) PA, son of Charles Russell and Sara Hastie Robertson. He was a National Merit and William Stoddart Scholar. He sang in practically everything, including Freshman, Apollo, and Yale Glee Clubs, University Quartet, and University Choir. He is best known, however, as Pitchpipe of the Alley Cats and ultimately of the Whiffenpoofs of 1966. He was also a great mentor to younger singers, as reported by both Mike Kail and Norm Hile of ’67.

Mike Kail says:“I met Bill my sophomore year at Yale. He was a big deal in Yale singing and I was a complete nobody. He immediately took an interest in me and was a great mentor. Bill was one of the best people I have ever met. He was unfailingly kind and self-effacing. There was nothing he would not do for a friend and nothing he ever expected in return. His goodness was almost of a spiritual nature. Although he has been gone for a long time, his memory still burns bright.”

Following senior year, Bill stayed at Yale, rooming with John Harpold and Bob Farrell in Brantford, CT, and taking an MAT. After another year at Harvard, Bill attended and graduated from Stanford Law School and then went to work for the Washington, DC firm of Bergson, Borkland, Margolis and Adler at 1 Dupont Circle, specializing in antitrust law. He eventually was made partner and married Betsy Turner, his secretary (they later divorced). As anti-trust law began to wind down during the Reagan administration, the firm repurchased Bill’s partnership and downsized.

Towards the end of his life Bill came out as gay, lived with a partner, and we ultimately lost him to the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the time, Dec. 1, 1984; but, as Norm Hile reports, even in dying Bill acted in character: “Tragically, Bill died very young, a victim of AIDs during the height of that terrible epidemic when we lost so many young men to the disease. During his last months of life Bill was brave enough to volunteer for experimental treatment. While it was certain that it was too late to help him, Bill undertook this in hopes others could be saved. It was a typical of Bill: an unselfish act so others might benefit.”

Norm Hile adds: “Bill and I continued our friendship after his graduation, and whenever we were together, we spent hours talking about our adventures in Yale music, our singing group and Glee Club friends, and the wonderful times we had at Yale. He loved remembering our crazy moments on Spring tours, our efforts to win the University Quartet Contest and the friends and personalities we met along the way. One of my fondest memories of Bill was cajoling him, around 10 p.m. most nights of his junior year, to meet me at the Yorkside Restaurant. There he would eat what was likely his only meal of the day: grilled cheese, fries and a Coke, and we would discuss all the news about Yale singing and his chances to become a Whiffenpoof in the Spring. My favorite thoughts are of his warmth, his talent, his friendship and his dignity. Bill’s memory will remain with me forever.” Y66 says Amen.

*

Daniel Chemers, Bill’s law partner, remembers:

I met Bill in the summer of 1970 when he and two fellow graduates of his Stanford Law School class (Peter Bell and Paul [Granny] McGregor) arrived in Pennsylvania to begin their federal clerkships. Peter and I clerked for Judge Joseph Lord III of the District Court in Philadephia, and Bill and Granny clerked in Wilkes-Barre for Judge Max Rosenn of the Third Circuit. Bill appeared gentle, genteel, intelligent, and musical. But a somewhat retiring character, unlike Peter and Granny.

Our various clerkships ended in the summer of 1971, at which point Bill, Granny and Peter headed to D.C. to jobs with law firms. Bill and Granny both joined Bergson, Borkland, Margolis and Adler, an antitrust specialty shop. Bill and Peter lived together with others in a group house (seven inmates) in the tony Cleveland Park section of the District. A year later (autumn 1972), my wife and I came to visit Peter and Bill in D.C., which led to us taking up residence in the Cleveland Park group house and my joining Bill and Granny at the Bergson antitrust firm. At this point, Bill was both a housemate and a work colleague.

Bill was a fine roommate in our bourgeois commune (the house had a pre-Columbian art collection, a swimming pool, and a leasehold requirement that we retain Fabeola Neverson to clean the house and keep tabs on us twice a week). We rotated job responsibilities (I believe Bill was doing the pool cleaning initially). This rotation included cooking, with each of us required to prepare dinner for all housemates and any guests every seven days. While Bill was creative musically, he was far less so in the kitchen: every seventh day we would invariably get to eat his rendition of his mother’s meat loaf. After a year, however, Bill became adventurous and he served a chicken dish, which led a housemate to inquire why his meat loaf now had bones in it. This was the the last time Bill varied from meat loaf.

During the period we lived together, Bill began a relationship with Betsy, a good-looking and sassy woman from New Bern, North Carolina. Betsy was as brash and outspoken as Bill was shy and retiring. Betsy was into fashion and Bill was decidedly not (I have an endearing memory of Bill in his squash outfit with mid-calf dark socks). They seemed an odd couple but they got married, moved out of the group house and took up residence in Bethesda. They seemed happy. They got divorced.

Bill did well at the law firm. He was a lucid thinker and elegant writer. He and I became partners at the firm after a few years. (Granny bailed and started a successful firm in Seattle.) Bill grew a beard and looked increasingly Lincolnesque. We were having a good time and making what seemed like a boatload of money but the gravy train ended when Ronald Reagan and his antitrust chief Bill Baxter came to town in 1980, as they were adamantly opposed to the active antitrust enforcement policies of their predecessors. This change in policy caused the shrinking and then dissolution of the firm we were with, and Bill and I avoided the final implosion by leaving the firm and creating our own small shop — Chemers and Robertson.

There were a number of reasons I wanted to practice with Bill. I admired his raw intelligence and the elegance of his thinking and writing. I admired his soft-spoken and unflappable demeanor. I admired his commitment to and love of the arts.

By this point in time Bill’s relationship with Betsy was a matter of history, and it was becoming apparent (though it was not directly articulated) that Bill was gay. It was a different time. Gays were largely still in the closet.

The focus on gays increased in the early 1980s as the AIDs epidemic entered the country’s consciousness. Bill was unfortunately among the early victims of the virus — when he died the fatality toll was about 7,000.

Bill’s downward spiral was hard to watch — not only because of Bill’s physical pain, but also because the fear of others led to a form of shunning. The care Bill received at NIH was wonderful, but the only things that seemed to give him real solace were the continuing support of the life partner he had found and the great music he treasured, particularly the symphonies of Beethoven.

Would that Bill had been born into today’s America where gays need not be closeted and AIDs is a chronic disease. Instead, Bill felt he had to live and did live a tangled life in which he exposed a limited portion of himself to most of us. I loved what I was permitted to see and regret more was not available. But we’re all products of our times.

Bill was “Sweet Willie” to his friends. He was easy and graceful and gentle. I miss him.