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SENIOR PROFILE: Bee-man, biker and ‘professional Girl Scout’

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By Lupita Gonzales

Perhaps you’ve sighted Bill Oshima on his 1973 Raleigh (once called the Cadillac of Bicycles) as he pedals toward the recreation center for a yoga workout; maybe you spotted him hiking the river trail to El Sombrero or to the bank at SECU. You might have done a double take as he pops out of his back yard wearing a bee mask or wields his push-mower and vanquishes the growth in his yard on Lincoln Avenue.

At 84, Oshima is trim, slim, generally in good shape, and keeps his mind and body busy. Bill is active, but that’s nothing new to him or anyone who knows him. Obviously he does not subscribe to the “rocking chair” mode of retirement, nor does he neglect his health needs as he aims “to keep well.”

Asked if he pays special attention to his diet, Bill admits, “At one point, I was starting to gain weight. I gave up beer; now I drink ginger ale.” Nevertheless, he asserts, “I’m not prone to gaining weight.”

About two years ago, Oshima was pedaling his way toward the recreation center, following the dictum of riding opposite to traffic, when a car turning on Grand and Mills struck him. As Bill lay strapped down while an EMT attended him, he characteristically continued trading pleasantries with the attendant; forthwith, he was released and not hospitalized.

Two weeks before that, he fell backward off a ladder, about 12 feet, while pruning a pear tree. He remembers quipping, “There are no partridges (in a pear tree.)” Seemingly living a charmed life, about a month ago, Bill had a single-car accident just off Interstate 25, near Pecos, but incurred much less damage than did his vehicle, which had to be towed away. He does admit, though, that he’s been hospitalized once — with pneumonia.

He’s a survivor.

William “Bill” Oshima likes to think of himself as William the Conqueror, as his Japanese name, Susumo means “forging ahead,” “Bill” is the common clipping of William, and Oshima translates into “large island.” Thus, Bill sees himself as “a conqueror who forges ahead on a large island.”

You’ve got to hand it to this fellow — he’s certainly a positive thinker, a thinker, in general. He adds that he takes a special interest in the origins of Spanish names he has encountered in the area. Well, there’s plenty of fodder for that interest anywhere you turn in New Mexico.

Born in California in 1925, Bill is the son of Japanese immigrants who arrived in this land with no knowledge of English. His father, an “ichi mi san,” third child, as such, was not to have inherited, so he was sent by his family to the United States to get an education. Bill’s mother, a Buddhist who later converted to Christianity, was picked by a matchmaker to marry Bill’s father.

Oshima cites the miscegenation laws of the 1920s as the reason for this match, as by law, one could not marry outside his or her race. Adding to these difficulties, as a foreign immigrant, one could own no property, so assets needed to be put in American-born children’s names.

Through the years, the Oshima family worked hard, but during World War II, Bill’s father lost everything, and within a month, the family had to leave all they’d worked for. Bill comments that as a result of these experiences, he has developed “a lot of respect for people who lose jobs … and respect for minorities.”

 During World War II, because of Pacific conflicts, many Japanese were placed in internment camps. Bill was interned; nevertheless, following the philosophy of his family that one must be educated, Bill combined this mandate with his desire to leave the camp, aspiring to matriculate at Antioch College in Ohio, but that was not to be. Yet, in his family, he says, “you had to go to school,” adding, “all of us went to college.”

Bill was nonplussed at not being able to enter either Antioch College or Ohio Wesleyan due to the quota system in place at the time. Nevertheless, he credits the American Friends Society (Quakers) for helping him persist despite the odds.

Eventually, Oshima was admitted to Muskingum College, a Presbyterian school in Ohio. It wasn’t easy, he says, but thanks to the efforts of Kerry McKnight, the registrar there, Bill got in, and he earned his undergraduate degree with a psychology-sociology major. From there, Bill attended Ohio State-Columbus to work on a master’s degree in social work.

While he was working on a project in Cleveland, he met his wife-to be, Helen Bull, who practiced social work at a settlement house. By then, it was the ‘50s.

Bill and Helen married and raised a family of four children, three who survive today — John Oshima, married to Laura, lives in New York; Toki, married to John Pranio, lives in Maine, and Kenji (Robert) and his wife live in California.

Bill’s wife of 52 years, Helen, passed away recently. Bill muses that his grandchildren are a cross-section of the American melting pot, with Jewish, Swiss, Irish, Italian, and of course, Japanese ancestry. He adds that his grandchildren are the ninth generation of the Bull family dynasty on his wife’s side.

With his background on social issues, Bill became, as he humorously describes it, “a professional Girl Scout with a specialty in camping.” Actually, he worked with the Girl Scout Council as a resident camp administrator, running troop camps for the national organization. He describes his duties as running the gamut of social issues — delinquency prevention and control, working with schools, counseling, Community Action for Youth.

Bill recalls that at that time, the Kennedy administration was in full swing. From Cleveland, Oshima moved on to Boston, where he was busy organizing programs under the auspices of the Settlement House. His duties there centered about running family community service programs — efforts designed to help families “run their families.” He later received a faculty appointment at Tufts University and ran a social service program in a housing project.

It appears that Bill Oshima’s skills were in demand; during the last three decades of the 20th century, he took a faculty position at Boston College. He earned a master’s degree in business administration and had been appointed by then-Gov. Michael Dukakis to the State Office of Minority Business Assistance. After that, he worked at the Massachusetts Highway Department as an administrator and contract compliance monitor until the early ‘90s. So this multi-skilled, talented gentleman certainly was never idle.

Meanwhile, though, Helen, a member of the medical faculty at Boston University, worked on research in a petit mal epilepsy project. Bill recalls riding his bike from their home in Newton, Mass. to Boston U.

About 40 years ago, Helen decided to become a farmer, quit the faculty position, and the Oshimas purchased an 11-acre farm in Pembroke, and became herbalists and farmers. Bill recalls, “Helen became known as ‘the herb lady’” as they raised culinary and medical herbs, packaging and selling them. It was at this time that Bill developed an interest in biology and beekeeping. This bucolic life, though, came to an end in the early 90s, when Helen’s rheumatoid arthritis condition became so marked that the couple moved to the more salubrious climes of Las Vegas.

Bill and Helen’s love of farming was revived here, as they purchased land along Montezuma Route and established “Fern Hill.” Unfortunately, Helen’s condition worsened, and eventually Bill’s role became that of primary caregiver until Helen’s death.

But Bill SUSOMO forges on. Amazingly young looking and young thinking, he bikes, walks, runs, keeps bees, and apparently is the life of the party at the Las Vegas Community Soup Kitchen at the Methodist Church, where he washes dishes like a pro.

Perhaps it’s an extension of his professional Girl Scout days. Robert Amai and his wife, Patricia, also soup kitchen volunteers, assert, “Bill is so fun and funny. We enjoy him at the soup kitchen and love his humor so.”

At the recent Fiesta Run, Bill further distinguished himself as a runner, placing first in his age group and fifth overall in all categories. And he’s not slowing down yet.

As this is being written, Bill Oshima is on the Atlantic shore in Maine and in Nova Scotia, visiting his daughter, Toki. And if his car hadn’t sustained so much damage a few weeks ago, Bill probably would have driven it across country instead of having chosen Amtrak.

But one more facet of Bill Oshima needs to be revealed: He is a true romantic. Asked what keeps him so young, he quickly replied, “Recovering love.”

Ah so, Bill Oshima, will this be the next chapter in your life?