The last time I saw Bill Cole was at the 40th Class Reunion in Tannersville, Pennsylvania in May. I knew he was ill. But until that weekend, I was not aware of just how sick he really was.
We were part of the class of 1978 from Notre Dame High School in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. As the photo above will attest, we were organized and tidy in the front and just a bit chaotic and jumbled in the back. Bill is in the last row, peeking out over Kathy Haggerty’s left shoulder.
I met Bill for the first time in the fall of 1973, the beginning of 8th grade. He was awkward, as we all were at that point in our lives. He had a shock of red hair that set him apart and made him a lightning rod at times. Not everyone in the school was kind. Early into that fall semester, Bill lost his father. That loss set him back on his heels. I believe that the events of the fall of 1973 contributed to him being somewhat introverted, shy, and reserved as he progressed through his years at the school on the hill.
Surviving the petri dish of junior high school and high school is challenging without the body blow of losing a parent. Bill outwardly handled it with grace but I know that he struggled. He rolled with trauma privately. In hindsight, I know that none of us had any idea of the challenges, torment, and heartache our classmates endured in those years. Adolescence was awkward enough without people knowing all of your secret trials.
After graduation in June of 1978, we scattered like leaves on the wind. Most of us went away to college, others took jobs or joined the military. Bill headed off to King’s College in Wilkes-Barre. He had told me that it was at King’s where he reinvented himself. He shook off the reserved facade and became more outgoing, made friends and became involved in his college environment. College, not high school, was where Bill discovered who he was. It was where he found his footing.
Bill worked for a time after college in the private sector. He ended up making a change in his life by joining the army as a military policeman. Bill deployed with his MP unit to the Balkans in the mid-1990s in support of the NATO mission in Bosnia. He put himself in harm’s way to protect his fellow soldiers, his country and the people in the Balkans who had been devastated by a brutal civil war. When Bill left the Army, he went into the hospitality business. He worked in the mid-Atlantic region and finally went to Florida where he gained success working as a controller for Marriott.
Just over five years ago he met a woman named Albina, and everything fell into place for Bill. They were married in September 2017. He was not shy about telling the universe that Albina was the great love of his life. If you followed Bill on Facebook, you saw photos of their adventures to Europe and South America as well as an active life in his community of friends in Florida. Bill and Albina beamed in every photo, reveling in each other. Bill was actively engaged in life with Albina by his side.
Bill had a quiet strength about him. He was a kind, gentle man who cared deeply for his wife, his family and his friends from every stage of his journey. He was a patriot, a warrior. Bill was possessed of resilience that enabled him to overcome adversity and move on without getting stuck in the mire of the past. He had every reason to complain about his diagnosis, but he did not. That was not his style. Instead, he focused on living a good life right up to the end, enjoying and returning the love that surrounded him. He went out on his own terms with his great love, Albina, and his family and friends near his side.
Four decades have swept by us since that class photo was taken outside the breezeway at Notre Dame. At this moment we pause and take a measure of that time. We have all had our characters built by the events of our lives; tragedies, triumphs, and the quiet everyday moments lived in between. Some look back with nostalgia on a simpler, happier time walking the halls of that school in the mid-1970s. I hope we all took the lessons we learned in and out of the classroom all those years ago to realize a better version of ourselves. If you look at social media since Bill’s death, there has been no end to the kind words that have been written about him by friends, family, and colleagues. He was a phoenix who raised himself above the challenges and heartaches of his youth and gave back to the universe in positive and meaningful ways. He left his mark, he found great love, and he touched a lot of lives. He fought a difficult battle with aggressive cancer, staying positive until the end. We should all aspire to that kind of strength and impact.
Bill, you are missed.
A memorial service will be held to celebrate the life of Bill Cole on February 9th, 2019 at 2:30 p.m. in the Maximilian Kolbe Catholic Church, 701 N, Hiatus Road, Pembroke Pines, Florida (33026).
William Francis Cole (July 01, 1960 – January 07, 2019)