William F. (Bill) McDowell was a 91 year old pioneer Alaskan when he passed away in Anchorage in August of 2013, followed by his wife (Frances) just 10 months later. Born in Bristol, South Dakota, Bill was the eldest child of Encie and Samuel McDowell. A bright and enterprising boy, he opened his first radio repair shop in a Clark, SD hardware store at the age of 16. In time for his senior year of high school, the family moved to Elkton, SD, where Bill followed his father into the automotive repair business after graduation. With an innate understanding of how anything mechanical worked, Bill never hesitated to tear something apart, even if it meant fashioning his own tools and improvising parts to make it better than the original.
On December 7, 1941, the 20 year old and his dad were wiring a prairie school for electricity when they learned of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The next year, Bill enlisted in the U.S. Navy, after a few months of employment at the Seattle Port of Embarkation. Competing for a way to further his education, he was trained in the relatively new technology of radar at Great Lakes Naval Training Station and then won a slot at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. In November 1943, Bill was assigned to the pre-commissioning Detail of the USS Bennion (DD 662) and served as chief radar technician on the destroyer for the duration of the war, mustering out with the rank of chief petty officer.
World War II brought people together who otherwise would never have crossed paths. One day in 1943 on a street in Washington, D.C., Bill met Frances Buono, a beauty and Pennsylvania native then working as a nanny but soon to be an inspector for the Aluminum Corporation of America. They corresponded throughout the war and, as soon as Bennion reached the West Coast, Bill hopped a train headed east. He and Frances were married in New Jersey on December 15, 1945 and a month later Bill became a civilian again. With his new bride, Bill returned to the plains and the family business, although in 1948, they established their own plumbing, heating and electrical enterprise, with Frances running the store and Bill handling service calls. Their two children were born in South Dakota.
In 1955, Bill saw an opportunity with PHILCO and went to work as a field engineer stationed at King Salmon and later Anchorage in the far-off Territory of Alaska. He transferred to a civil service electronics engineer position at Elmendorf AFB a year later so, after the adventure of driving the 1400 mile, mostly gravel, Al-Can Highway, his family was able to join him in The Last Frontier. Over the years, Bill and Frances purchased, built and remodeled numerous housing units, operated rentals and invested in Anchorage. The pair was part of the community’s explosive growth as blueberry bogs were turned into shopping centers, previously graveled lanes became a network of actual paved roads and the mountainside soon sparkled with the lights of new homes. Ambitious and an inveterate multi-tasker, Bill also started a part-time commercial maintenance and industrial business that went full-time once he retired from civil service in 1981. He got particularly involved with Alaska Sausage and Seafood and, with his unique skill set, spent over 30 years with them before finally retiring for good in 2002.
Bill never allowed himself much leisure time but he took an enduring interest in the USS Bennion Association and thoroughly enjoyed the shipmates’ annual reunions convened all over the country from the 1980s to this day. He was a founding member of the Kamikazi Survivors’ Association as well as several professional organizations, as long as they didn’t meet too often. He wasn’t a man who generally enjoyed either committees or meetings. Of course, fishing Prince William Sound, the Kenai and the Susitna River drainage was a whole other affair and he didn’t often miss an opportunity to wet a line, catching salmon into his 90s.
Bill loved to travel and, besides seeing the South Pacific and Japan during WWII, he took Frances on a Caribbean cruise, passing through the Panama Canal for the first time since the Bennion took him to war in the Pacific. Bill’s curiosity and imagination never abated as he enjoyed trips abroad and around America for ship reunions and family gatherings. Natural and man-made wonders fascinated him and he never saw a museum placard or a historical sign he didn’t want to study in its entirety.
Bill had a front row seat to history as Alaska transitioned from territorial status to statehood, the state recovered from the 1964 earthquake, oil was discovered at Prudhoe Bay leading to construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and Anchorage became a world-class city. He loved Alaska and the life he built for his family. He and Frances are interred at the Fort Richardson National Cemetery near Anchorage and are survived by their daughter (Pat) and son (Steve), now both residents of Prescott, AZ.