My old pal Bill Beard was as complicated as America, as creative, as loving and sometimes as troubled.
As I sat by Bill’s deathbed recently, we reminisced about searching in the woods as boys for Bigfoot. (It’s just as well, we decided, that we never caught one.) We spoke of long-ago crushes, of his prison time, of his love for his wife. Gingerly, we discussed the young woman he had brutalized.
When we were boys, Bill tried to teach me how to fix cars; he wasn’t so successful at that. But with the bumpy course of his life, he taught me how Americans can better support those left behind.
I’m not sure Bill would have much patience for the way I’m telling his story, though. He didn’t make excuses. “I made bad choices,” he told me. “A lot of them.”
But I think there’s more to it than that, as I contemplate a very decent man who did very bad things. And in his story there are perhaps larger lessons that can help us prevent other young people from following his path. So, Bill, if you’re looking down at me, rolling your eyes, just hear me out.
Walter William Beard, or Billy, as he was then, grew up down the road from me, on a farm near Yamhill, Ore. I hung out with him partly because he lived a more interesting life than I did. Most of us waited to drive until we were 15 and could get a permit, but Billy began to chauffeur his grandmother around at the age of 10, even on highways. The police never caught him, and I burned with jealousy.
But there was a lonely, traumatized Bill, too. His parents separated when he was a baby and his mom abandoned him when he was a year and a half old, leaving him toddling outside the house wearing only a diaper. His dad and various relatives then juggled him, so he lived in seven different houses in his first five years.
He stopped going to high school, and by the time anyone noticed and he returned, he didn’t have enough credits to graduate. Our high school handed him a diploma anyway, even though he didn’t have the skills to compete in the job market, because it wanted to be done with him.
Well-paying union jobs in sawmills and factories were disappearing, and drugs were moving into communities like ours. Bill couldn’t find a solid job or a sense of purpose, and he self-medicated. He began to steal and sell drugs to pay for his habit. He seemed lost and became reckless. Then, one time when he was with a girlfriend on the Oregon coast in 1986, in the tourist town of Lincoln City, he did something so terrible that I still can’t square it with the buddy I admired.
It was evening at a Circle K convenience store, and Betty Gerhardt, 23, was working alone at the register. Bill walked in and asked for some bacon, so she walked over to the cooler and turned her back on him.
“He grabbed me and pushed me into the back room,” she recalled, and he hit her over the head with a jar of honey, knocking her to the ground. “He went for my pants. And when he did that, I started fighting.”
Bill pulled her pants and underwear down to her ankles, she said. Fearing she was going to be raped, she struggled back furiously, even as Bill grabbed empty bottles stacked nearby and smashed them over her head and body. The glass cut her badly — she had scars on her forehead and arm from the attack — and he left her bloody and unconscious on the floor.
After failing to break into the cash register, Bill walked out of the store and drove off with his girlfriend. Gerhardt awoke and called 911, and an ambulance rushed her to a hospital, where she remained for three days. The police promptly caught Bill, still covered in Gerhardt’s blood.
Deeply ashamed of what he had done, Bill always claimed to me that he had been so high on meth, cocaine and alcohol that he was in “a stupor,” as he put it. “I blacked out,” he told me.
It could have been even worse. “I got lucky because I had a gun in the car, and I always carried it,” Bill told me. But that time he left it behind; we both were silent as we pondered what he might have done if he had been armed.
For Gerhardt, the assault was devastating: She quit the job and was never again able to work with money for fear of being robbed. For decades, she was terrified of being alone in the dark. Even years later, when she worked a shift that ended in the wee hours, her father would wake himself up every night to drive to her workplace and then escort her back to her home. (Gerhardt died in November of a brain infection, at age 61, after we had spoken.)
A judge sentenced Bill to 20 years in prison.
“That was one of the hardest things to go through,” Sue Buchholz, his stepmother, who raised him for most of his boyhood, told me. “His dad and I could never understand it.” Bill’s dad, a truck driver and a stern believer in law and order, was shattered that his son could have committed such a monstrous crime; Buchholz thinks that’s one reason Bill’s father’s heart began to fail, leading to his death at the age of 58.
Frankly, in writing this essay, I worry that sharing details of this crime will leave the impression that this horrific action represented all of who Bill was. He had another side full of humor, warmth and eagerness to help others. Forgive me, Bill — for nobody should be remembered for the worst thing he ever did.
I also fear that some readers may believe that I’m minimizing a brutal assault, or will be perplexed that I remained friends with a violent drug dealer who in many ways destroyed a young woman’s life. I make no excuses for Bill or his actions. But one thing I’ve learned in a lifetime of reporting is that humans contain multitudes, and in this case I hope we might learn from Bill’s troubled journey how trauma self-replicates: When we let so many Americans fall behind, they not only suffer greatly but also inflict great suffering on others.
Bill Beard never lived up to his rich potential. He hurt. And he hurt others. For those struggling in America, pain can be transitive.
When Betty Friedan called attention in the 1960s to the lack of women’s rights, she described it as “the problem that has no name.” In a similar way, there isn’t a good term for the bundle of pathologies that have afflicted working-class Americans like Bill.
My “How America Heals” series has explored how to overcome these afflictions, which include stagnant incomes, addiction, homelessness, suicide, chronic pain, loneliness and early death. We still don’t fully understand how they are correlated or why most of them affect men more than women. I do believe that, as with Friedan’s probing of gender inequity, our explorations of these problems will help us chip away at them. That’s the reason for this series: A nation cannot thrive when so many have been left behind.
One gauge of how many Americans are struggling is that average weekly nonsupervisory wages, a metric for blue-collar earnings, were lower in the first half of 2023 than they had been (adjusted for inflation) in the first half of 1969. That’s not a misprint.
Another: If the federal minimum wage of 1968 had kept pace with inflation and productivity, it would now be more than $25 an hour. Instead, it’s stuck at $7.25.
The Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton popularized the term “deaths of despair” for the tumbling life expectancy among working-class Americans since 2010, but the tragedy goes far beyond the staggering mortality. For each person who dies from drugs, alcohol and suicide, many others are mired in addiction and heap pain on their families. Gerhardt told me that she had been addicted to heroin for years, underscoring how widespread this malady is: Perpetrator and victim shared a parallel suffering, and both died before the age of 65.
The challenges are particularly acute for Black and Native American men. Native American males have a life expectancy of only 61.5 years, shorter than men in India, Egypt and Venezuela. And the median wage of Black men in 2020 was only 55 percent of that of white men, a smaller share than it had been in the late 1960s.
The burden of the inequities, for people of all races, is compounded for America’s less educated — like Bill.
“Capitalism in America today is not working for the two-thirds of adults who do not have a B.A.,” Professor Deaton said in a lecture in Amsterdam. When a Nobel Prize-winning economist warns that capitalism is failing most Americans, it’s worth paying attention. That failure has been etched into the lives of people like Bill Beard and Betty Gerhardt.
Despite his 20-year sentence, Bill was released after less than five years, apparently because he behaved well in prison and because friends of Gerhardt who were also inmates were beating him up. He then worked at a plastics factory and quickly became indispensable, the man who could get any piece of machinery to work. More important, he met Elizabeth, a fellow employee.
Bill had two ex-wives with whom he had three children, and neither he nor Elizabeth was looking for a partner. But a year later they married.
“My world changed again,” he told me.
“He’s kind, he’s loving, he’s honorable,” Elizabeth said about Bill. “He would do anything for anyone.”
Elizabeth disapproved of drugs, and Bill’s drug use subsided. He started a taxi company driving people to Oregon wineries, and this grew into a successful wine tour business. The way Bill thrived when he was an entrepreneur married to Elizabeth underscored his talent, and also how much potential had been squandered earlier in his life.
He and Elizabeth lived in a trailer with a sign posted beside the driveway: “We Support Law Enforcement.” I teased Bill about that, wondering aloud what the police officers who arrested him would have thought. But he meant it. Like many working-class white Americans, he was also sympathetic to Donald Trump, although he added that he’d never voted in his life. Bill thought politicians were corrupt, condescending, out-of-touch elitists who didn’t care about people like him, but he felt Trump spoke to him in a way that many politicians did not.
Bill could be prone to conspiracy theories. During the coronavirus pandemic, he asked me if Covid-19 was real. I told him it was and encouraged him to get vaccinated. “I never get vaccinated for anything,” he told me.
After years of rough living, Bill developed health problems and suffered three heart attacks. Then, when he felt abdominal pain a couple of years ago, he found it difficult to locate a specialist willing to accept his insurance. Finally, when the pain became unbearable, he went to the emergency room — and was diagnosed with late-stage rectal cancer.
He and I had discussed for several years the possibility of my writing about him, and he was happy to oblige. We kept putting it off, and he was terminally ill and in pain when I last interviewed him — but still in characteristic good spirits.
We spoke of old friends who had died from overdoses or been tormented by addictions. One mutual friend who abused fentanyl was homeless. So I asked Bill if he regretted having sold drugs.
“I don’t feel like I have regrets for their addiction,” he said. “I did what I did to make the money.”
That answer surprised me because Bill tended to be softhearted. But he also had a strong belief in personal responsibility.
“As long as you have the mental capacity to know right from wrong, it’s your own damn fault” if you get into trouble, he said. “You can’t blame anyone else. It’s ludicrous. Who is there to blame?”
I pushed back. Didn’t the addiction crisis have something to do with larger forces like lost jobs, declining earning power and failed education and mental health policies?
Yes, he acknowledged that there was something to that, but he wouldn’t budge from his embrace of 100 percent personal responsibility, including when it came to his assault on Betty Gerhardt. “I was high; I was angry,” he said, about his mental state at the time. “Nobody else made me do it. How can you blame anybody else?”
While I admire Bill’s acceptance of responsibility, it’s also true that none of this unfolded in a vacuum. He made appalling decisions — but why was it that tens of millions of Americans were suddenly making bad decisions?
The previous generation of working-class Americans had thrived with a booming economy, rising education levels and union jobs. But in blue-collar neighborhoods, the generation that Bill and I belonged to imploded. Among our close neighbors where we grew up, two other boys were later convicted of raping young girls in separate incidents, another was convicted of armed robbery, a girl was convicted of attempted murder and a boy set someone on fire in a drug deal gone wrong.
I’ve struggled to process all this in a community that I love, but I don’t believe this was a spontaneous collapse of morals. Nor do I think it can be separated from the context: a poorly educated work force that had few options when good blue-collar jobs went away; the proliferation of hard drugs and a lack of treatment programs; and an atomization of society following the unraveling of the social fabric and the collapse of churches, clubs and other local institutions.
The no-excuses personal responsibility narrative has been absorbed by many working-class Americans, and it can be highly motivating; it’s often a pillar of efforts to overcome addiction. Yet this narrative can also be dispiriting when people fall short of their aspirations, amplifying their sense that they are hopeless screw-ups — and that in turn can mean one more reason to reach for narcotics to numb the pain.
I wonder: What killed my buddy Bill Beard? In one sense, he killed himself by making bad choices. That’s what he would say. Yet as long as we’re talking about responsibility, shouldn’t we also be having a conversation about our collective responsibility for the squeeze on working-class Americans that made dumb moves more likely?
So what are the solutions to this kind of tragedy?
Private-sector unions have a good record of improving blue-collar earnings and can provide a sense of belonging and purpose. Job-training programs like Per Scholas (one of the nonprofits I recommended in my 2023 gift guide) have an outstanding record of turning low-income workers into productive tech-sector employees. Early childhood programs put children from troubled homes on a path to success. Drug treatment and mental health programs can turn lives around; it should be a national scandal that only about 6 percent of those with substance use disorder get treatment.
John Collins, a retired judge who thinks he faced Bill in his court decades ago, believes that mentoring makes a big difference. He supports Friends of the Children, which provides paid counselors for struggling children beginning in kindergarten that stay with them through high school graduation.
Another mentoring program, Big Brothers Big Sisters, has an excellent record of opening doors for needy boys and girls. Yet it has a long waiting list of boys who want a mentor but can’t get one.
Adults also benefit from mentoring. Just 10 miles from where Bill and I grew up is Blanchet Farm, a nonprofit that offers people who have wrestled with addiction and homelessness a chance to get sober and start over.
It’s now run by Ross Sears, who understands well the human capacity to screw up: He was an alcoholic by the time he turned 21. Relationships and marriages fell apart, and he floundered. “There were no good jobs,” he said. “It was brutal.”
In Sears’s case, his route out of life’s quagmires came when he eventually found a spot at Blanchet Farm. “I started working with the pigs,” Sears recalled. “A little bit of humility, but it’s honest.”
It helped that he was stuck in the countryside, without any access to alcohol, and that it was a long program where most people stay six months or more. It also gives people job skills, such as carpentry and cooking, so they can earn money when they leave.
I think wistfully of Bill. If he had had the chance to have a Big Brother or another mentor, or if he could have spent time at Blanchet Farm when he was a young man, perhaps his life would have taken a different course and Gerhardt would have been spared her nightmare.
Bill died one night in October at the age of 64. It may be too late to help him, but across America, millions of others are now teetering.
We as a nation have the tools to help kids like Billy — not perfectly, but perhaps enough to make a difference for many of them.
I think back to when Billy was a cheerful, hopeful child traipsing through the woods with me as we searched for Bigfoot, back when he was struggling in school, and I think: How could grown-ups have let him go astray without even trying to help?
Today I see millions of American children floundering in foster care, dropping out of school and slipping into gangs, and I think once more: Where are the grown-ups?