William B. Wright Jr. finished a life well and fully lived, as a rancher, aviator, archaeologist, skier and environmentalist, on August 16, 2019.
Born to Linda Schwartz Wright and William B. Wright Sr. on Aug. 29, 1930, in Sierra Madre, Calif., he grew up on the 71 Ranch, near Secret Pass in the Ruby Mountains, Nev., where his only playmates were “horses and ‘little brother’ John.” Homeschooled through the eighth grade, he boarded in Elko for his high school years and attended Phillips Academy, Andover, Mass. After graduating with a degree in archaeology from Stanford University, where he met his wife, Mary, to whom he was eternally devoted for 67 years, he returned home to help his father on the newly purchased Marys River Ranch, north of Deeth, Nev. Upon his father’s death in 1966, he took over management of the ranch. He devoted himself to all aspects of the ranch operations, and then on his “day off” (Sunday), would explore with his “girlfriend” (wife) Mary all over Nevada and Utah, in his little airplane. Much of their exploration was due to his interest in archaeology, some of that work in collaboration with the University of Utah Archaeological Center. He loved to fly and took part-time jobs as a flight instructor, crop duster, aerial hunter (for U.S. Fish and Wildlife) and even for the U.S. Postal Service when the easiest way to deliver mail to remote ranches during winter was with an airplane on skis.
In his 30s, he became an avid skier after a first lesson from a very “wild and wooly” and lifelong friend, Dick Dorworth. By 50, he was a regular in Sun Valley, Idaho, and a champion Masters ski racer, flying himself between races, Mary’s body-building and her own Elko Athletic Club activities, plus all his children’s school activities, all over the U.S. (He bought a faster airplane.) He hiked and skied many of the peaks in northern Nevada (most all were first descents) and skied off the Angel Face, above Wells, Nev., well over 100 times. He loved to hike Bald Mountain, bottom to top, carrying his skis right under the lifts, the day after the mountain closed each spring. He would use any excuse to fly, ski, explore or visit his countless friends.
He achieved notoriety as “Willow Bill” in the 1960-’70s, as he refused the advice of natural resource specialists of the day, who were advocating spraying native willows, leveling of native hay meadows and straightening river and stream beds, to maximize hay and grass production. As a result, Marys River Ranch has become widely known as a place of bountiful native meadows, river meanders, native vegetation, countless birds and other wildlife: a rare, conservationist’s dream of Western ranchland management.
During that same period he devoted much money, time and energy, with his friend and fellow rancher Jack Boyd of Halleck, Nev., resisting and ultimately defeating a proposal by the Army Corps of Engineers to build a dam and reservoir on the Marys River; the Corps’ maps depicted his ranch headquarters as the future visitor center. He fought and won subsequent battles with public utilities and mining companies, preventing a transmission line from crossing the unspoiled watersheds of the upper Marys River and Bruneau River, just south of the Jarbidge Mountains, and the construction of mining haul roads down unspoiled canyons.
He loved to participate in all sports and was a regular at the local bike races and runs, well into his 70s. His energy, positive outlook, appreciation and interest in others, while ignoring entirely all racial, ethnic and class barriers and differences, affected many lives for the better. Whether he was hiking in the mountains, stacking the record number of hay bales in one day, visiting with friends or parachuting out of an airplane at 87, his frequent expression of “That was the best day ever!” exemplified his attitude toward life: “Get the most out of every experience and opportunity.” He was a powerful influence to his family, community and anyone he was around. His light will be greatly missed.
He was preceded in death by his parents, brother John and John’s wife, Barbara. He is survived by his wife, Mary; children, Victoria and Preston of Deeth; Bill III (Vivian) of Spring Creek; Kristen of Hailey; and John (Merrily) of Bellevue, Idaho; and 16 grandchildren and two great-grandkids.
There will be a memorial service on Aug. 29 at 10 a.m. at Grace Baptist Church, 3030 Fifth St., Elko, Nev.