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Bill Fix, ‘the ageless man,’ dies at 94

UPDATED: Fri., June 12, 2020

Some stories don’t translate well to print, and Harry Fix worried the story he told his father, Bill Fix, right before he died, might be one of them. Bill loved words, and over the years, the Fix children had created their own words. The family adopted this language, so the story does require a smidgen of translation.

“Deeg” was their word for dog, “keet” for cats, and so it stood to reason that their name for squirrel was “scampadeeg.”

The family was on a train in Thailand visiting Vicki Butler, the niece of Bill and his wife, Harriet. Bill, whom Harry said was always appearing suddenly and striking up conversations with anyone he met, had been chatting with a Smith College professor and fellow train passenger.

The women on Harriet’s side of the family have a long history of attending Smith College – one of the many colleges that the family supported over the years, including all Spokane colleges and universities.

Bill “looked out the window and he saw a squirrel,” Harry said. “He’s was like, ‘Oh, scampadeeg!’ This professor looked at dad really quizzically and said, ‘Scampadeeg?’ My brother, father and I, we just totally lost it. My father broke into tears he was laughing so hard.”

When Harry retold that story, Bill was no longer able to speak, but a smile spread on his face. Scampadeeg.

Bill Fix died May 30 of heart complications at the age of 94. He was a savvy investor, philanthropist, mountaineer, conservationist, storyteller, runner and bibliophile, remembered by friends and family for his generosity with his time, his knowledge and his interest.

Harry said his father was a savant with numbers, often conducting business on scraps of paper, napkins or receipts. He had a handy backup system, storing every number in his head.

He was willing to share that knowledge, sometimes to comic effect. Harry said once his father leaned over the crib of Allan Fix, Bill’s son, and gave him a roundup of how stocks were performing since the market opened that day. Bill bought his first stock at 15, in Washington Water Power, now Avista. As of a 2017 Spokesman-Review article, he was still invested. He also encouraged his friends to make an investment in something he just knew would be big: Apple.

He received a scholarship to attend Yale University, but enlisted on D-Day and enrolled in the Navy’s V-12 College Training Program at the University of Washington. When he was discharged in 1946, he transferred to Yale, where he graduated with a degree in engineering.

Bill was obsessed with climbing, and while a student at Yale, he scaled Harkness Tower, which is 216-feet tall.

“The campus police caught wind of this and he famously evaded them down the backside of the tower, went through some window and escaped without detection,” Harry said.

After graduation, Bill taught biological, nuclear and chemical warfare at U.S. Army Garrison Presidio of Monterey.

Bill and Harriet married in 1950, and he went to work at Harriet’s father’s lighting company, Columbia Electric. At 44, he went into business for himself, advising clients like Whitworth Foundation and Fairmount Cemetery.

In a Spokesman-Review article, Bill said he attracted clients by “offering good advice, and working cheap.”

“He was incredibly intelligent,” Stacey Smith, Whitworth University’s senior associate vice president for advancement, said. “He had a photographic memory for numbers and facts and data, and he just was one of those people that knew obscure facts about all kinds of things.”

Smith said Bill was fun to be around and known for his dirty limericks.

Harry said his father was a savant with investments, but Allan also pointed out that his father was frugal. He recounted the story of the first time Bill took his boys skiing. Instead of buying a chairlift pass or even a pass to the tow-rope, they herringboned up the mountain.

John Roskelley, lauded Spokane mountaineer and former county commissioner, was mentored by Bill when he joined the Spokane Mountaineers at 16. He recalled the story of coincidentally being on the same flight to Kolkata (formerly know as Calcutta) as Bill, and Roskelley sat down next to him.

“I looked at his shirt and I saw this massive ink stain on his nice, white shirt,” Roskelley said. “I said, ‘Bill, your pen leaked.’ And he looks down at it, and he said, ‘Oh, no, I bought it this way. I got it at Goodwill before I left.’ Classic Bill.”

When Roskelley joined the mountaineers, his first climb with Bill set the tone for their entire relationship. In 1965, the group was at Grand Teton National Park, climbing Mt. Moran.

“He let me lead the group at times up that mountain, and I thought that was absolutely fantastic that he allowed me to do that,” Roskelley said. “We became very good friends over the years because of that incident.”

A big reason Roskelley enjoyed the group was because of how the other members treated him.

“I hadn’t been treated as an adult or as a grownup basically by any other adults, and I thought it was very unusual that all these people just accepted you as you were and and trusted you, and they spent their time teaching you,” he said.

Roskelley described Bill as a coach, and “that encouragement sends a lot of young people into places that they wouldn’t normally go. I think a young person needs just a bit of encouragement from an adult, and away you go.”

Roskelley climbed alongside Chris Kopczynski, another world-class mountaineer from Spokane who was also mentored by Bill. When asked about Bill’s death, Kopczynski said that when his father died, he cried for him, and when Bill died, he cried for him, too. It was different, but also the same.

He remembered seeing Bill on the streets of Spokane, and they would inevitably end up in a two-hour conversation. While chatting, Bill would grab hold of a street pole and pull up his body perpendicular to the pole while giving investment advice or reciting poetry or Shakespeare.

“We called him the ageless man because I just thought, When is this guy going to show signs of his age?” Kopczynski said.

Though he ran in high school, Bill started running in earnest as a way of conditioning for climbing. It became a lifelong hobby, and he even coached high schoolers. He kept detailed records of his times, on paper, and in his head, just like the stock market.

“If you’re going this far, then you have these two time targets. He was really into that,” Harry said. “He used to say running is a mathematical game.”

A 1968 Spokesman-Review article headlined “’Old Age’ Quickens Bill Fix” reported that at 42, Bill ran a 2:10 half-mile.

“To those not familiar: 2:10 is about good enough for a high schooler to make the varsity nowadays, though seldom good enough to score a point. For 42-year-olds, it’s world class,” The Spokesman-Review reported.

Though he loved it on its own, running fueled Bill’s climbing. Harriet would never discourage him. However, it terrified her, especially when he snuck off on his own.

Allan said that once, after a day of climbing, when everyone was back at the lodge, Bill signaled that he was just going to take a look at a hill. He was wearing leather moccasins, and – absent for a few hours – made his way to the top of Mount Teewinot. His shoes had completely broken down by then, and so “he had to glissade down the snow, meaning sit on his butt,” Allan said. “He used a tree branch instead of an ice axe to slow his descent.”

Harry said his dad would delay telling Harriet about trips he booked. Joe Collins, a fellow climber and Bill’s friend of 70 years, said he understood that Harriet was scared, but to the two of them, the only danger was the car ride there.

“Mainly it was the fact of the unknown, being away, but there’s always a danger in life,” Collins said. “But climbing certainly brings you closer to it.”

Bill’s love of the outdoors extended to conservation efforts. Bill worked with the Dishman Hills Conservancy since it began, said executive director Jeff Lambert. Bill played a key role in landowner negotiations, and could be quite persuasive.

“Bill was good at developing relationships that built trust, and from that relationship, there was also an understanding of what benefited the other party,” Lambert said. “He was a good talker and a good listener.”

Bill managed the money for the Johnston-Fix Foundation, originally established by Harriet’s family, but by all accounts, Bill never wanted credit for the work he did.

Bill and Harriet “were quiet about it,” said Debra Schultz, Bill’s cousin by marriage. “It was quite remarkable. They did not need to be in the spotlight.”

In fact, Bill worked tirelessly toward making more affordable housing available in Spokane, particularly working to secure Housing and Urban Development funding for senior housing. He was a member of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist. In addition to working on St. John’s endowment committee, one of the first housing projects he worked on was the Canterbury Court Apartments, just next door.

St. John’s Cathedral Dean Heather VanDeventer has been with the church for two years, and she said the story she always hears about Bill is that “he started giving back to the community and giving back to the school he had attended before he even had much money to give, in those very early years.”

Bill had a recreation building at Winchester Courts senior living facilities dedicated to him, named the “Fix Center.” The letters for the building came two sizes bigger than planned and friends, knowing Bill, poked fun.

“I’m sure Bill is thrilled that the letters can be seen from his South Hill home,” Kay Reilly, the special projects coordinator for Kiemle and Hagood, who at the time had worked with Fix for nearly two decades, told The Spokesman-Review.

Bill and Harriet were also big supporters of the arts, and Harriet was on the board at the Spokane Symphony. Betsy Cowles, who served on the board at the same time, knew the Fix family most of her life because Bill and Harriet were friends with her parents.

“He was certainly somebody who was an inspiration to make you want to do better in your life,” Cowles said. “He was the kind of person you don’t want to disappoint. His wife was the same way.”

The last time Cowles saw Bill, he was attending a Spokane Symphony performance.

“When I heard that he passed away, I just remembered seeing him in the lobby, just doing the thing he loved, which was coming to a concert, and being enveloped in that wonderful live music at The Fox,” Cowles said. (Cowles is the chairman of the Cowles Co., which owns The Spokesman-Revew.)

Jennifer Hicks, former Spokane Symphony director of development, said Bill and Harriet were foundational to the organization, and Bill simply loved music.

“It wasn’t just like, ‘Oh, listen to that music, isn’t that pretty?’ ” Hicks said. “No, he would learn all about the composers and their lives and want to just get more out of concerts than the average person.”

Harriet and Bill were both intellectuals – even their garage was lined with bookcases – and bonded through their love of the arts and philanthropy, but the couple also faced incredible tragedy together. Their two daughters died young – Carol at 14 of a brain disease, Kathy at 38 from breast cancer.

“It hurt dad to the core, as it did all of us, but he was the one who could look past the pain to see, as he as he put it at Katherine’s funeral, to celebrate a marvelous life,” Allan said.

Harry said it was a testament to his parents’ bond that their relationship survived such heartbreak.

“It’s pretty remarkable that they kept it together for 65 years, married,” Harry said. “They were a team.”

In their later years, the pair went into an assisted living center, and Harriet was struggling with Alzheimer’s, but Bill went on talking to Harriet about the things he normally would, the stock market or the book he was reading.

“I don’t think he actually saw it,” Harry said. “He just saw her as she was.”

Harriet died in 2015.

While in the home, Bill remained active. He had a project to read a biography of each president, and he donated those books to St. John’s library collection. He also continued timing himself, walking up and down the halls, using his walker.

Harry said he would say, “OK, we did seven minutes yesterday to do three floors, we’re gonna get it down to 6:50.”

Harry and Bill had been talking about Bill coming to live with him, and Harry happened to be at the home the day it was announced that assisted living centers would be on lockdown, so they made a break for it.

Everyone who knew him said Bill had lived a full life, but there was one thing left undone. Bill had made a deal with his caregiver, Jeff Phillips, who Bill had known since Phillips was in grade school.

Bill loved Bloomsday – in fact, many times he ran with Harry – and he made a deal with Phillips that when he was 100, Phillips would help him do the course in a wheelchair. They were going to get T-shirts made and everything.

“Well, maybe we’ll do that, in his honor,” Kopczynski said.

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