The search for Wild Bill: After nearly six decades, man finds his father

Published: Sunday, Sept. 1 2013 1:35 p.m. MDT

As a child, Randy Stevens dreamed of meeting his father for the first time. Sometimes he even watched for him on TV, hoping to catch a glimpse of the man known as Cowboy Bill or Wild Bill.

He would have to wait a little while to see him.

Almost six decades.

Last January, at the age of 57, Stevens finally found his father after thinking he had been dead for years. He met him and took him in and gave him the home his father was never able to give him, and he learned his story, which is part of his story, too.

What unfolded was a story of his father’s life that is so good it should be a movie or at least a country song. It’s a tale of abandonment and bouncing from foster home to foster home during the Depression and running off with the circus and later the military. It’s a tale of dodging bombs at Pearl Harbor and fathering nine children and taking up a nomadic life as a pro wrestler.

William Cole is 88 years old now, and he doesn’t speak or move so well. He is living with the son he never knew he had, and they are getting caught up on their history. Randy is slowly and patiently mining his father’s memory and rummaging through his memorabilia — the old wrestling tights and trunks, the pre-match fliers, the championship belts, the 100 or so ashtrays he collected from hotels around the country.

Stevens, a retired plant manager for the U.S. Postal Service who grew up in the Ogden area and now lives in Missouri, offered his story after reading a profile in last week’s Deseret News. It chronicled a Utah man’s discovery of a brother he never knew existed and how he found him at the age of 58.

“I thought you might be interested in another story,” Stevens wrote.

William Cole, born and raised in Utah, never had much of a family life. At the age of 5, shortly after his parents divorced in the midst of the Great Depression, he was dropped off at an orphanage. As Stevens tells it, “He waved goodbye to his mother from the orphanage not knowing it would be the last time he would ever see her.” His father died from a heart attack, his mother from cancer, and that was that.

Bill was taken in by relatives, but it was not a happy arrangement — he was just another mouth to feed during the Depression — and he spent the rest of his short childhood moving from one home to another. At 13, he attended a circus in Ogden and joined it. He worked odd jobs for the circus traveling from city to city, but without a Social Security number he couldn’t be paid, so he hitchhiked from Vancouver back to Utah. At 15, he lied about his age and joined the National Guard and was soon shipped to Hawaii. As fate would have it, he was driving a truck in Honolulu on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941. He jumped out of the truck when he saw the Japanese bombers overhead; the truck exploded and he survived. The Pearl Harbor Survivors Association — defunct as of Jan. 1 — estimated last December that there are just 3,000 Pearl Harbor survivors still alive. Bill is one of them, at least partly because he was so young when the Japanese attacked.

After the war, Bill and Louise married and produced eight children together. Randy was the youngest of those children, but Bill never knew of his existence. The couple divorced shortly after Randy was conceived and Bill faded from their lives. For a time, Bill came around occasionally to bring presents to his children, but those visits were discouraged. Louise married a man named James Stevens shortly before Randy’s birth, and they had five more children. In 1960, the family moved from Plain City to the Clearfield area, and Bill hit the road as Cowboy Bill.

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