Bill Whaley, beloved by his family, champion of the underdog, truth teller and armchair philosopher – the HorseFly who made a sport of chewing out those in power – passed away Monday (Feb. 8) on the slopes of the mountain that called him home. Tempo editor Lynne Robinson, one of his many friends, wrote this remembrance.
“Those guys were mythic,” Bill Whaley said, “ and the mountain was wild back then, not like it is now.”
He was speaking of Taos Ski Valley founder Ernie Blake and St. Bernard founder Jean Mayer.
We were sitting at a corner table at Doc Martin’s in late November, 2020. Snow was falling as darkness blanketed the town. A few people were seated at tables safely distanced, according to COVID protocol. Whaley and I both acknowledged the utter weirdness of it all, as we ordered bowls of green chile stew and glasses of mescal for him, red wine for me.
When Whaley arrived in Taos, by all intents and purposes, it was still the Wild West, notwithstanding Ernie Blake’s Bavarian village perched atop the mountain he had staked his claim to.
“Ernie was as tough as the mountain,” Whaley said, as he took a sip of the liquor warmed by his hands.
Landing in Taos
On a cool, clear day in November, 1966, a somewhat depressed college drop-out arrived at the Hotel St. Bernard, and asked the owner, Jean Mayer, if he had any job openings. Mayer replied that he didn’t have any openings, but “I think we need somebody in the parking lot.”
Whaley rented an old adobe in Valdez for $15 a month, and so began his Taos adventure. Eventually he was promoted from the parking lot to working in the hotel itself, skiing on his free time. After a couple of seasons spent at Taos Ski Valley, National Guard service claimed him for awhile. Then, in the summer of 1969, with $7,000 borrowed from his parents, and Mayer serving as a co-signer, he bought the old Plaza Theatre from Bill Beutler, the grandson of Bert Phillips, co-founder of The Taos Society of Artists.
Margo Beutler-Gins remembers the night (also in November), the theater burned down. “My daddy was on the roof and I remember seeing this long haired, scruffy looking guy in the alley – Bill saw him too. We talked about it years later when I moved back after decades away.”
The cause of the fire remains a mystery; none were charged with arson, but Margo noted the strange synchronicity, “My father, Bill Beutler, died 14 years ago to this day,” she said. While President of the Board of Directors of the Taos Historic Museums, she’d made the Blumenschein Museum available for Whaley to teach creative writing classes during the winters of 2017 and 2018. “It benefited us both,” she said.
After the fire, Whaley had moved his theatre operations to Ranchos in January, 1970, where he had a lease and right of first refusal at the El Cortez Theater. That spring, Dennis Hopper bought the building out from under him.
“‘When I met Hopper, he told me I could sue him, but that he needed it (the theater), to edit a film,” Whaley said, “then he offered me free rent for the summer. Later he and his brother David hired me to manage it.”
Whaley continued to seal his legacy as an entrepreneur and journalist in Taos for the next 50 years. For a moment he was even an early partner with Brad Hochmeyer at KTAO Radio, Few know he owned and operated a local trailer park for many years. Perhaps best known for publishing a monthly journal about art and culture, HorseFly, from 1999 to 2009, he also taught courses in literature, philosophy and writing for the University of New Mexico’s Upper Division Bachelor and Graduate program in Taos. In 2010, he edited Paul O’Connor’s award-winning photography book, "Taos Portraits."
Humor and steel nerves
O’Connor says of Whaley (who was slated to write and edit the artist’s second volume), that “Bill had the rare combination of a great sense of humor along with nerves of steel.”
His own book "Gringo Lessons: Twenty Years of Terror in Taos," displays both qualities while it chronicles the adventures of the young Whaley from 1966 to 1987. Filled with Taos characters past and present, famous, infamous and complete unknowns, the local community of skiers, Chicano activists, artists, erstwhile dope dealers, fellow soldiers, temptresses and the occasional movie star, along with a host of con artists, are all brought to life on these pages.
Back then, Taos was still outlaw territory, despite the colony of artists who had begun arriving decades before, and his first two decades here were spent attempting to navigate the local rituals of doing business in a town that apparently abided by its own laws.
It was during this time that he married his first wife Susie, the mother of his son Fitz. They had met at Colorado College before he came to Taos to ski. After he dropped out, she moved in with him. Fitz was born in 1973, but Whaley was already on a path to self destruction, and by 1978, she’d moved back to Colorado with their son.
“They remained friends,” son Fitz said, "and were great co-parents (with my step dad) to Lili,” the daughter he co-parents with her mother, local restaurateur, Jen Hart. Fitz, like his father, has a formidable intellect and philosophical bent, and says what he’ll miss the most are the conversations they had, jumping from one subject to another.
“Sports – he was a huge football fan, San Francisco 49ers; philosophy – from Socrates to Montaigne; pop culture, politics, religion – nothing was off limits,” he recalled. “I’ll miss those talks, we talked almost every day.”
Back then, after Susie and Fitz had left and his life began to unravel, Whaley returned to Nevada for a decade-long, academic discursion that honed the writing skills we are gifted with in his book. The inscription inside the copy he gave me, reads “To Lynne, the last cat living – love, Bill.”
Evidently, even cats who have lived nine lives run out of luck at some point.
A thorn in the sides
After Whaley returned to Taos in the early ‘90s, he published not one, but two newspapers – the short-lived Geronimo (with writer Tom Collins) and the aforementioned HorseFly, which for a decade, was the only alternative news source in the Taos Valley. Whaley became known for his critical observation of local politics and politicians, including those he might have, at one time, supported.
His good friend, author John Nichols, remembers him fondly as “a complicated, complex man who loved this valley and dedicated much of his life to helping others less fortunate.” Nichols mentioned an elderly couple, neighbors of Whaley’s, he’d cared for until they passed away.
There were others who benefited from Whaley’s largesse. He had as many friends as he did enemies, those who found themselves on the receiving end of his, oftentimes, lethal pen.
For those of us fortunate enough to have him as a teacher or editor, he pushed us to find our own voices, while respecting literary boundaries. “The rules are there to guide you,” he told me once. He ripped my stories for HorseFly to shreds until the rewrites shone like polished stones. By the time he tapped me to write several pieces for "Taos Portraits," the scalpel had long been put away. Of all the editors I’ve had the honor to work with, Bill was the one who helped me to discover my singular style.
Another of his proteges, Juanisidro Concha, who had excelled in creative writing and poetry while in high school, says he had for a time “lost the connection, until Bill rekindled the flame of creativity within me, and helped me gain the confidence I needed to write again. There was still so much Ii wanted to learn from him.”
As a boss Kelly Pasholk, art director at HorseFly remembers him being “so generous, encouraging and helpful. He was like an anchor, a cornerstone of Taos, I don’t think this town will ever be the same again.
"Working at HorseFly was the best job I ever had," she said. "It was the most enriching thing. I got to know the community – he was a friend to everyone.” She recalled him telling her after he had sold the paper, even people he had disparaged told him how much they missed it. “Such a brilliant mind,” she said, “but even more important, was his big heart.”
Suzanne da Silva who also worked for Bill, saw him a week ago at Cid’s Food Market. “He talked about his granddaughter Lily and how proud he was of her skiing abilities – she had gotten on the ski team.”
“He seemed happy,” she recalled.
The artist Nora Anthony, a longtime close friend and haiku fan, wryly commented, when asked how she was coping with her loss, “Well you know it’s a slippery slope.”
She went on to say that she would miss her friend very much. “I had conversations with Bill I have with no one else.”
When I replaced Rick Romancito at Tempo, after he retired in early 2020, Whaley called to congratulate me (I had given him as my only Taos reference) and invite me out for a celebratory drink. We had such a great evening, we decided to make it a regular event. We’d meet once or twice a month at different places in town, and talk for hours about literature and politics and Taos, until the pandemic put a stop to those outings.
But I did succeed in having him write a few pieces for Tempo, much to the utter shock and disbelief of the management, for whom he (and his pesky insect), were their nemesis.
“I cannot believe I’m signing checks to Bill Whaley,” Taos News Publisher Chris Baker exclaimed one day.
Recently a new alternative zine showed up in town. “The Noseeum,” obviously a nod to the first pesky insect, was created by a couple of successful young “Taos- based” investigative journalists, relatively new arrivals to the valley. So I called them and invited them to meet and do an interview for a piece in Tempo. Unbeknownst to them, I also invited Whaley. He arrived with a gift – a flyswatter emblazoned with the HorseFly’s logo.
His wicked humor already in play, I assigned him the story. The editors were dismayed that he proceeded to write it without formally interviewing them, and were aghast at his email response.
“I’m working on other stuff,” he wrote, “and I think it best to let sleeping journalists lie,” he added cryptically.
“What does that mean?” The successful journo responded from L.A. where she had moved since our meeting a week prior. “For work,” she explained. He never responded. His piece was published the following week.
After selling HorseFly, and his subsequent separation from his wife of many years (Debra Villalobos), Whaley had settled into a daily routine of yoga, teaching classes at UNM-Taos, writing the occasional blog post and working on his second book about the HorseFly years. He also returned to the slopes after a 25-year hiatus, inspired perhaps by the prowess of his granddaughter Lili.
“She’s unbelievable, a total natural,” he told me as he showed me a video on his phone; 10-year-old Lili fearlessly flying down black runs. He was so proud.
My daughter Genevieve who was one of his students, and one of his yoga teachers, says he was “one of the greatest gringos the valley has ever seen.”
He was with Lili skiing Spencer’s Bowl, and his last words to his granddaughter, before he collapsed just ahead of her, were about paying attention to her turns.
“Making turns is like writing sentences, it’s like being attentive in a yoga pose, it’s not about making the perfect turn or sentence or yoga pose, it’s about knowing how to use the tools you are given,” Genevieve remembers Bill telling her.
We were both reminded of conversations we’d had with him, about the practice of the ancient Greeks in the gymnasium, being a philosophical as well as a physical exercise.
“He loved Socrates,” Fitz said, “ I think he wanted to be the GadFly – hence HorseFly - Taos was his Athens, but philosophy aside, he originally came here to ski, so it’s fitting his life would end on the mountain, doing what he loved.”
“He loved life,” John Nichols said, “and he loved the slopes, and for some, he’ll always be a thorn in their sides.”
For many local politicians, past and present, that will surely be the case. The last post he made on his blog, Taos Friction, continues his position of holding them accountable for their actions,
“In that precocious art and history community,” Bill Whaley wrote, “the dear leader refuses to allow public restrooms because he wants to remind merchants, visitors and residents, whose bowels and urinary tracts cry out for relief, that he’s “Bellis the Bossman” and you’ll “do it” and pass gas on his say so.”
Taos town manager Richard Bellis and several others may not be among those of us mourning the loss of one of Taos’ true treasures, but they will not forget him, that’s for certain. His memory will remain forever imprinted on this valley, indelible, like the ink he gave to so many.
Rick Romancito, who, as fate would have it, was the one who gently broke the news of his death to me, paid his fellow journalist tribute: “A community of creative people like Taos needs someone willing to spill the apple cart once in a while. Whether one agreed with him or not, whether one looked askance at the values he preached or not, and whether one stood on his side of the ideological fence or not, Bill Whaley championed the alternative viewpoint. He relished his role too, often taking a classic debater’s oppositional stance just to prove a point. This made him some enemies over time, but they were enemies who’d likely draw fire from other quarters anyway and not just from Whaley’s eager pen. He just liked to be the one to point them out. We can’t all agree on everything, but we certainly need a broad and educated viewpoint to help gain perspective. That, I suppose, is Bill’s legacy for me, one I hope will be remembered when consensus is sought.”
Correction: Margo Beutler-Gins was mistaken: Bill Buetler passed on March 8th, 2007.