Bill Ritchey, 1954-2019

Photo by Anarres Project for Alternative Futures

“Everybody’s doin’ somethin’

I heard it in a dream

But when there’s too much of nothing

It just makes a fella mean”

–Bob Dylan

Story by Pete Shaw

September 10, 2019

Epigraphs, I suppose, should have some meaning regarding the text that follows them. And I also suppose that with an artist like Bob Dylan, one can find many meanings and bend them to one’s will and words. That seems fitting even if I am not sure why I chose those precise words. But in general, I understand their purpose.

A few hours ago, I found out my Friend and Comrade Bill Ritchey had passed back on September 1 at Legacy Emanuel Hospital. He was 64, too soon gone.

I first met Bill in 2012 at one of the organizing meetings for supporting the International Longshore and Warehouse Union’s (ILWU) grain handlers who were in contract negotiations with the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association. He and I were involved in the media group, and Bill was figuring out what contacts we had in various outlets across the country. I remember him saying he knew someone at the New York Times and would contact him. The Times is a heavy hitter, and I got a chuckle out of this unassuming person noting he would handle this as easily as he might take up heating up a kettle of water for a cup of tea. And it quickly became clear to me that this was a person whose Friendship was worth gaining.

Somehow or another I found out Bill was a big Bob Dylan fan. To call myself that would be a huge understatement. When Dylan and The Band’s complete Basement Tapes were released, it seemed a good idea to get a copy to Bill as soon as possible. I did so, bringing them to his hands at Food Front where he worked. He was excited in that Bill way: eyes twinkling, and his voice getting a slight lift to its otherwise calm tone and slight quaver. “I can’t wait.” We talked about the music which prior to its official release had been one of the most popular bootlegs in music history, and he was game for listening to the whole ball of wax–or rather zeroes and ones–of what for both of us was some of our favorite music.

For four months, Dylan and most of the members of The Band met at Big Pink, the house in West Saugerties rented by Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and Richard Manuel, and recorded all sorts of songs, some originals–such as “Too Much of Nothing” from which the epigraph is taken–and some covers. Much of the music was just an exercise in tossing around ideas that drew on the influences of these musicians who have crafted much of the soundtrack of my life. Recorded on a consumer reel to reel in Big Pink’s basement, the songs were at most meant to be demos for other artists to consider. But the spirit of them, after the amphetamine and other drugs fueled world tour that they had been on came to an end when Dylan got into a motorcycle crash, was all about the serious business of finding artistic paths very different from that whirlwind tour and enjoying the trip in good company. It is a reminder that, as some critic wrote, community implies good times, and good times are where you find them. In that music they created in the Summer and Autumn of 1967, Bill and I found them.

The next day Bill and I had this email exchange:

Bill: “hey! i started my cd player and began listening to the basement tapes! i love them, thanks so much!


Me: “I cannot be held responsible for you not leaving your abode for the next two weeks. They are so sweet. I don’t think I could ever grow tired of Richard Manuel’s piano playing.


Bill: “thanks again, i’m sure this will be with me for years.


And for almost five of them it was.

On another visit, when there were some goings-on at Food Front–strife between management and employees–Bill told me that a few of his fellow workers had come to him asking how they could fight management. “First thing,” he said he told them, “would be to take a political science course.” A person of bigger pictures.

But of course he also understood the current, smaller one. I soon received this message: “food front: union we won! 11- 64, the MF’s spent more on their union bustin lawyer in one day than a cashier makes in a month and they still lost.


And now I am seeing in my mind the last time I saw Bill, at an anti-fascist rally a couple of summers ago. As usual, he had on a helmet because he had biked to the rally. He told me again how much he enjoyed The Basement Tapes, and then said that he might soon be moving to New York. We bid each other wishes for a safe day, and good luck for brighter futures. 

I am not sure if he went to New York. I do know that I did not miss him, or at least I did not miss him too much. He was a Good and Decent and Kind and Friendly person who cared about people, and as I type, I am uncertain about whether, now, I miss him. I will miss seeing him around, of course, and I likely do not have to tell you that after I get through lying to myself that I will miss him dearly, forever.

But those beautiful qualities that composed him–attributes that others of greater fortune than me knew at a greater depth than I did–will endure. They are meant to be embraced, cherished, and enjoyed, even in the absence of those who lived them, by those of us who continue on.

See Bill speaking on Imagination and Social Change: The Creativity of Occupy:

  9 comments for “Bill Ritchey, 1954-2019

  1. Elizabeth Liberty
    September 11, 2019 at 11:40 PM

    I was close to Bill years ago. We both were caught in THE AREA WHEN THE TOWERS CAME DOWN ON 9/11. We started the first memorials in Greenwich Village in New York. Can someone telll me what happened to Bill?

  2. Montelee Ritchey Pietrzak
    September 17, 2019 at 7:53 AM

    He was my brother. I loved him dearly. M

  3. Angela Stillman
    October 5, 2019 at 5:55 AM

    I knew Bill when he lived in Havana he was a good friend, I’ve known him for 40 years. My condolences to his family.

  4. October 5, 2019 at 5:45 PM

    Bill was an awesome guy. I knew him well back in the day. Sad news.

  5. October 6, 2019 at 5:33 AM

    Bill was a member of my 1973 high school class.

  6. Karen
    October 14, 2019 at 9:33 PM

    Saw Bill a lot in school and before he moved. We talked on Messenger, and a few years ago he stopped at the library in Havana to visit me. All of a sudden, he was off of Facebook and I really missed him. Hope he is peaceful and living the life he wanted. He will be missed

  7. Mimi German
    October 27, 2019 at 10:46 AM

    Bill was my friend. He was kind, often very funny, one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever know, true to the movement of whatever made sense, living,delightful, intriguing and amazing to hang out with especially at 4:30 AM actions! I loved Bill. When he told me a few years ago that he had a medical emergency in his apartment and that a neighbor helped him out, I asked him if he wanted to die. He said no. I asked then why he hadn’t gone to see a doctor? He told me he’d think about it. The next time I saw him Food Front he still hadn’t gone but told me he would if he could use me as an emergency contact. Of course I said yes. When I got the call from the hospital that Bill had died, and this was a few years later, I was shocked. Bill was always known as an amazing person. Watching the video from the article here has made me grateful for every minute and every conversation I’d ever had with him. He was a light. A force filled with love, grace and knowledge. We pounded the streets of Portland together during Occupy and beyond. Forever with love for you, Bill. Thank you for the time.

  8. November 17, 2019 at 5:50 AM

    Mimi.There were times in New York when he expressed wanting to die feelings. I thought he had committed suicide when I first learned that he had passed.. He neglected his health. He was a terrific guy, but very sad hidden side.

  9. June 16, 2020 at 5:10 PM

    Bill was my building supervisor, friend and artist mentor. He was intelligent, funny and very kind. I found this tribute searching on line for him. I recently found a pencil drawing of his “Heartichoke” and a book he signed inspirationally about making art. I’m proud to say I’ve been collected and travelled on the proceeds from my artwork. Enjoying an early retirement and grateful for his early support of the naive artist.

    I lived with his ex wife for a time, in SW Portland, before her return to New Jersey. I see her sister around Portland from time to time.

    Rest In Peace sage artist and friend to many,

    Darrell Gossett

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