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William A. Byers

June 08, 2013|By JANET HEIM | janeth@herald-mail.com
  • Bill Byers was still hunting into his 90s and got this more-than-25-pound wild turkey at the age of 92.
Submitted photo

William “Bill” Byers was a beloved teacher in Washington County.

He taught 42 years for the county school system, the last 29 as a driver’s education teacher at Williamsport High School, where he taught countless teenagers to drive.

Bill knew a lot about what was going on in the community from the back-seat conversations of students awaiting their turn at the wheel, said his wife of 68 years, Ruby.

“My dad, he knew everything going on in the high school,” said son Joseph “Joe” Byers of Hagerstown.

His student drivers also got lessons about nature as they drove around the county, with Bill sharing his passion along the way.

“He loved feeding the birds and deer in the backyard,” Ruby said.

Joe’s daughter and his oldest grandchild, Alex Willems of Boise, Idaho, grew up not far from her grandparents’ farm.

“I was always here” at the farm, Alex said. “Pop was just all about being outside. He’d identify leaves on trees, birds, flowers, cows.”

At one time, Bill had more than 30 ponies, and would host races at a racetrack they had on their property.

Joe said the farm was run as a co-operative with four or five other farmers on the same road. Bill had a combine, one farmer had a hay baler and one had a corn chopper.

“You just worked to help each other,” Joe said. “My father had cattle here until he was 85. Until after he turned 90, he was on a tractor.”

During his teaching career, Bill also taught eighth-grade math and science, high school business math, world history and bookkeeping.

Bill’s workdays began long before the bell rang, with him rising early to take care of the animals on the family farm, then continuing the chores after he got home from school.

Joe said as a child, he helped on the farm.

“He worked all the time, taught school, fed cattle before class, came home and was on the tractor,” Joe said. “I didn’t play sports because we worked.”

It wasn’t until he was an adult that he and his father, both working as teachers, would schedule annual hunting trips during fall school break.

Those trips started in the 1970s and continued for more than 25 years.

“We weren’t back a week and we were already talking about next year,” Joe said. “In many ways, my father was my best friend.”

Bill also had a large garden and generously shared his bounty.

“He grew corn, melons, turnips, and gave them to everybody,” Ruby said. “He was very proud of his beautiful roses and took them into school for the secretaries.”

“When I picture my dad, I think of a hardworking, generous, loving person. He would give you the hat off his head,” said daughter Jana Tolerton of North Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Jana lived in Washington County until she and her husband, Ty, both teachers, moved south seven years ago. She said her son admired one of Bill’s hats, and Bill immediately took it off his head and gave it to him.

Bill was born near Shepherdstown, W.Va., the youngest of six children and a twin.

“He was the last. They didn’t have a blanket for him” because his 40-year-old mother was unaware she was having twins, Ruby said.

Bill’s father was a farmer and cattle dealer. The family moved to Linden Hall Farm on Downsville Pike when Bill was 2.

His first eight years of school were at Center Hill School, a one-room schoolhouse on a corner of the family’s farm. He would drive a team of horses until 9 a.m., then tie them to the fence, climb over it and go to school, with someone continuing the work, according to the memoirs Bill wrote.

The farm, at risk of being lost to foreclosure during the Depression, was saved when Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a presidential order stopping farm foreclosures until they could be investigated. That prompted Bill to become a lifelong Democrat.

Bill graduated from Hagerstown High School in 1934, but didn’t have money for college, so he continued to help his father on the farm. A parishioner at the family’s church, John Wesley United Methodist Church, had offered $200 to those who signed and kept a pledge to not drink or smoke until the age of 18.

Bill was plowing a field when the check arrived in the mail. Although classes had started at Frostburg two weeks earlier, he packed and headed west, his first time away from home.

He graduated with a B.S. in elementary education from Frostburg State Teachers College in 1938.

Bill worked at two one-room schools in the county for one school year each. He was teaching seventh and eighth grades in Williamsport when he met Ruby Hoffman, then a senior at Williamsport High School and valedictorian of her class.

Ruby’s sixth-grade teacher suggested Bill ask her out, which he did in July 1941, after her high school graduation.

One of their dates took place on the evening of a snowstorm. Ruby’s father told her Bill probably wouldn’t make it, but Bill shoveled the quarter-mile lane at Linden Hall so he could get his car out and keep his date with Ruby.

In September 1941, Bill was the first to see the letter from the draft board informing him and his twin, Claude, to report to the board so they could determine which twin should be drafted. Bill did not share the letter with his family and reported to the office and said he should go.

Claude was not drafted until the following spring.

Bill was a drill instructor at Camp Wheeler, Ga., and George Reeves, the actor who played Superman on the TV program, was in Bill’s platoon. A soldier in the platoon had drowned and Bill was assigned to travel with the body home to Hollywood.

George told Bill not to stay in a motel, that he should call George’s mother and she would put him up. She took Bill out to dinner at the Brown Derby, and they saw Gracie Allen and several other movie stars.

Bill was an officer when he started dating Ruby. They only went on about a dozen dates because he was away serving his country. They got engaged in May 1944, and Ruby didn’t see him until he returned for their wedding on Jan. 28, 1945.

Nine days later, Bill, who was commissioned a second lieutenant, was shipped overseas to the South Pacific. His life during the Depression and his military service is documented in a video interview as part of the Veterans History Project through the Library of Congress.

Bill was discharged from the military in December 1945 and returned to teaching at Williamsport High School in March 1946. Bill joined Ruby’s church, Williamsport United Methodist Church, after their marriage.

In 1950, the couple bought an 85-acre farm and built the home where they raised Joe and Jana in 1958. There are now three grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

Ruby also graduated from Frostburg and went into teaching after spending 10 years at home with the children. Bill and Ruby each earned master’s degrees at Frostburg. Their children went to Frostburg, became teachers and married teachers.

“They were great role models, very devoted to their family,” Jana said.

Just weeks ago, all seemed normal for Bill. He worked out at Ravenwood, continuing the cardiac rehab he had started after having a triple bypass at age 83.

On Good Friday, he fell and struck his head on the kitchen counter, prompting a stay in the hospital, followed by recovery time in a nursing home. He was diagnosed with bladder cancer and returned home for a week before his death.

“The thing I’ll miss most about him, every time I called, I could hear the joy in his voice when he realized it was me and you saw the love in his eyes when he saw you approaching,” Jana said. “That’s always the way it was. What more could you ask for?”

Editor’s note: Each Sunday, The Herald-Mail runs “A Life Remembered.” Each story in this continuing series takes a look back — through the eyes of family, friends, co-workers and others — at a member of the community who died recently. Today’s “A Life Remembered” is about William A. Byers, who died May 27 at the age of 96. His obituary was published in the May 28 edition of The Herald-Mail.

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