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

Published: Monday, Sept. 2 2013 11:20 a.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.

He wrestled seven days a week, earning $50 a match. As soon as they were finished with their matches, Wild Bill and the rest of the wrestling troupe pile into a car and left that night to begin driving to their next event — Des Moines one night, Kansas City the next, then on to Chicago and Winnipeg, and so it went — sleeping on the road along the way. The wrestlers were divided into “good guys” and “bad guys” for ring personas, and the two groups never traveled or ate together. Bill was one of the bad guys. His contemporaries and friends included the legendary Haystack Calhoun and Gorgeous George. Calhoun, 6-foot-4, 640 pounds, once picked up Wild Bill — who was no small man, at 6-foot-2, 230 pounds — and threw him out of the ring like a bale of hay.

This was Bill’s life for a dozen years. He lost track of his family and vice versa. He never had a phone, and long-distance calls from pay phones were too expensive for him.

After his wrestling career ended, Bill became a wrestling promoter and later a town marshal in Iowa. It was in Iowa that he met and married a woman named Betty.

Randy knew little of this about his father. It wasn’t until he was 8 years old that he realized his stepfather was not his real father. Through brothers and sisters he learned that his father was a wrestler.

As Randy recalls, “As a child I heard from my siblings that (Wild Bill) might be on television — the ’50s and ’60s was a time when Friday night fights and professional wrestling matches were popular on TV — but I never saw him.”

He used connections as an employee of the Postal Service and a member of the Mormon Church — a proponent of genealogy before it became popular — to try to track down his father, but the search failed to turn up any leads. When the Internet age arrived, he began his search anew, but it failed as well. A few years ago he learned that a William C. Cole had died, and he assumed that was his father and his search was ended.

Then came a breakthrough. A cousin who was working on her genealogy came up with a lead that led to a man living in Creston, Iowa. Randy made the call in January of 2012.

As he tells it, “I was so filled with emotion I wasn’t sure how I would react. I called the number and when he answered I told him who I was. I asked if this was William Carlisle Cole, and he answered, ‘Depends.’ I then explained that I was his son. He said there must be a mistake. He asked if I was Marty, and I said, ‘No, that’s my oldest brother.’ He said, ‘Is this Joe?’, and again I replied, ‘That’s my next oldest brother, and then there is Lujuanna, Peggy, Patty and Alfred. Then there is me. When you divorced, mom was pregnant with me.’ ”

After the phone conversation, a photo of Wild Bill was sent to Randy. He saw the large arms and hands — much like his own — and considered it further confirmation. In March 2012, Randy’s sister Peggy flew to Iowa to meet her father, who was living alone (his wife had passed away). A month later, Randy met him. Finally, the family flew Wild Bill to Washington to be reunited with his children, with whom he hadn’t had contact for some 60 years.

Wild Bill’s health has declined in the last year or so until he could no longer live alone (he is diabetic). Randy invited him on several occasions to live with him and his wife before he finally accepted and joined them in February. Randy visits with him daily and tries to coax some memories out of him, although his father’s ability to communicate coherently waxes and wanes. They talk about his experiences in the war, pro wrestling, the Depression, family and life. Randy mines an occasional nugget, such as learning that he has another sister; she was born nine months after his own birth.

“It’s a relationship with my father I thought I’d never have,” says Randy. “It’s part of my life and putting all the links back together. My siblings have had the opportunity to finally get to know their father a little better, too.”

He thinks about this a moment. “It’s a lesson to others,” he begins again. “Don’t give up. I never expected this to happen. I thought I’d have to find out all these things in the afterlife.”

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. EMAIL: drob@deseretnews.com

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