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US Ambassador William A. Wilson, K6ARO (SK)

12/08/2009

William A. "Bill" Wilson, K6ARO, the first US Ambassador to the Holy See (the Vatican), passed away early from cancer on the morning of Saturday, December 5. He was 95. First appointed as presidential envoy to Rome in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan, Wilson was appointed the first full ambassador to the Holy See in 1984, once official relations were established, serving until 1986.

Merrill Dean, K6OXU/7, told the ARRL that Wilson "was like a second father" to him: "I met him when I was 15. At that time, I was working for Henry Radio and Bill came in and said he needed help putting up an antenna at his home in Bel Air. So a couple of my buddies went over to his house and put up an antenna. Then his wife saw it! She stood there and calmly said, 'Bill, that has to come down.' So he called us back over and we had to take it down. He eventually got a little wire up. From that time forward, we remained close friends."

Dean said his life would be "very different if it were not for Uncle Bill!" Dean told the ARRL that while attending UCLA for his MBA, he would drive his car to Wilson's home and then bike to campus: "I was in and out of his house every day. After I graduated with my MBA, he sent me around to all his buddies, including the Chairman of Disney. They told me that they really didn't have any positions open, but that since I was a friend of Bill's, they would find a place for me. I was the first MBA hired at Disney after Walt Disney had died. I eventually became head of Disney's Latin American Motion Picture and Sales Division -- the first one in such a position who didn't come up through the mail room."

Dean said that Wilson, an ARRL Life Member, was active on the air, especially on the low bands. "He had quite a station at his second home in Sonora, Mexico," he said. "He was just interested in staying in touch with all his buddies in the Bel Air Radio Association. I just visited him a few weeks ago and had a lovely time with him in [at his home in] Carmel Valley, California for several days. He remained very lucid and with his traditional good humor. We laughed and talked about a lot of our experiences together. He will surely be missed by all. He had a nice 95th birthday on November 3, complete with his favorite Stetson."

Ambassador William A. Wilson

Wilson, who made his name as a manufacturer of oil-drilling equipment, a cattle rancher, a real estate developer and a savvy investor, was a Los Angeles businessman and a member of President Reagan's "kitchen cabinet." He first met Reagan and his wife Nancy at a dinner party in the early 1960s before Reagan had turned from acting to politics. According to the Los Angeles Times, Wilson was a member of an inner circle of wealthy advisors who persuaded Reagan to run for California governor in 1966, then helped the future president guide his political campaigns. Along with two others, Wilson oversaw the trust put into place to manage Reagan's financial affairs once Reagan took public office, to avoid conflicts of interest. "I am deeply saddened at the death of Bill Wilson," said former first lady Nancy Reagan in a statement. "He was a dear friend for many years and a close adviser to my husband."

In 1981 -- soon after Reagan was sworn in as president -- he named Wilson, a Catholic convert and regular churchgoer, as his personal envoy to the Vatican; the United States had not had formal diplomatic relations with the Holy See since 1867, when Congress repealed funds for the consular post, citing a need to separate church and state. Based on his admiration for Pope John Paul II and their shared commitment to eradicating communism in Eastern Europe, Reagan aimed to restore the United States' diplomatic ties. In 1984, the US reestablished official relations, joining 107 other nations that recognized the Vatican as a sovereign body and the Pope as an international statesman; every president since Reagan has appointed an ambassador to the Vatican.

"He was a delightful, gentlemanly like man of the old school and he was the perfect diplomat," said longtime family friend Bee Canterbury Lavery. She said the Wilsons outfitted the residence in Rome with beautiful furniture: "They were the first ones, and so they really furnished the American Embassy there in Rome."

In 1984, Wilson was elevated from personal envoy to full ambassador, but according to the Times, several "missteps" caused problems with the State Department: "He was reprimanded for what diplomats considered improper contact with Marc Rich, a commodities trader who fled to Switzerland to avoid being prosecuted for racketeering, fraud and tax evasion, as well as with Archbishop Paul C. Marcinkus, head of the Vatican bank when it became caught in a major financial scandal. But his ultimate undoing came in 1986. Wilson had flown to Libya for an unauthorized secret meeting with Moammar Kadafi in January, only days after terror attacks at airports in Vienna and Rome had killed 20 people, the New York Times reported. US officials believed Libya, then a major sponsor of international terrorism, to be responsible for the attacks and had urged the international community to isolate Kadafi. Soon after, Wilson submitted his resignation."

William Albert Wilson was born in Los Angeles on Nov. 3, 1914, to William Webster Wilson and his wife, Ada. He attended Stanford University, where he met his future wife, Elizabeth "Betty" Johnson, the daughter of Pennzoil co-founder Luther Johnson. They married in 1938, he converted to her faith, and the couple had two children. She died in 1996. Wilson earned a master's degree in mechanical engineering at Stanford; during World War II, he served as a Captain in the Army Ordnance Corps. He worked for his father at Web Wilson Oil Tools, becoming president of the company before it was sold in 1960. He later served as a director for the Earle M. Jorgensen Co, a Southern California steel distribution company run by another Reagan advisor and Pennzoil, among others. As Governor of California, Reagan appointed Wilson to the board of regents of the University of California. Wilson also served on the board of trustees of St John's Health Center in Santa Monica and Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula.

According to his daughter Marcia Wilson Hobbs, Wilson died little after 1 AM on Saturday, at his home in Carmel Valley. She said beyond that his distinguished biography, Wilson was a good dad: "He was the best. He was a great father; he was very loving and very doting." Funeral services are planned for Friday, December 11. His family suggests donations in his name to St John's Health Center or Thomas Aquinas College.



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