• Deirdre McCrohan

Ex-Belvedere resident William McGee captured eventful life in 22 books


Former Belvedere resident William McGee, author of 22 nonfiction books about his adventurous life, died Oct. 30. He was 94.

Mr. McGee’s self-published books, 10 co-written with wife Sandra, covered a wide variety of subjects reflecting his journey through the changing times of his life, including his stint as a cowboy on an Nevada divorce ranch; witnessing atomic testing on Bikini Atoll; a history of the revolutionary World War II landing craft; his career in the television industry; and coping with sight loss due to macular degeneration.

Born Sept. 30, 1925, to Harry Elwood McGee and Vivian Lyon McGee in Livingston, Mont., Mr. McGee moved the following year with his parents and three siblings to Malta, Mont., where he was raised. Soon after, his father left the family for Alaska, and, at age 7, Mr. McGee began working for a neighboring rancher. At age 16, when World War II broke out, he dropped out of high school to work as a welder in Washington state before enlisting in the U.S. Navy on his 17th birthday.

He was a 20-year-old U.S. Navy sailor in July 1946 when he was sent to the Pacific on board the heavy cruiser USS Fall River. McGee was on board when the U.S. conducted a series of atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll — the first in a series of 23 explosions detonated by the U.S. between 1946 and 1958 on the reef itself, in the air and underwater.

Mr. McGee recounted the experience in his 2016 book, “Operation Crossroads — Lest We Forget: An Eyewitness Account, Bikini Atomic Bomb Tests 1946.”

All personnel were ordered to sit on the deck facing away from Bikini and cover their eyes with a bended arm against the face, he said. Because he followed these orders, Mr. McGee, whose ship was 12-15 miles from the target, didn’t actually see the flash of light from the bomb, but experienced reverberations from the blast; he was later in life diagnosed with a plethora of skin cancers, including five melanomas.

At 22, fresh out of the Navy and a self-described “handsome devil,” Mr. McGee might have become another working cowboy in his hometown, but he was looking for adventure. He became a horse wrangler in Yellowstone National Park and later a guide in Lake Tahoe. Then he got a job at the Flying M.E. dude ranch as a “dude wrangler,” entertaining the movie stars and other married women who were seeking quick divorces by waiting out Nevada’s unique six-week state residency requirement at the ranch.

Among other things, Mr. McGee’s job required taking the ranch guests on trail rides and driving them to local watering holes. Fraternization was strictly forbidden but unavoidable.

When Clark Gable and Ava Gardner invited Mr. McGee to go pheasant hunting with them, they drove three-across in the front seat of Gable’s 1948 Chrysler Town & Country convertible.

“Her leg against my leg,” Mr. McGee once recalled in an interview with The Ark.

At the ranch in 1948, he met divorce-seeker Joan Allison of New Jersey, and they married secretly in 1949. Mr. McGee left the ranch later that year for his new bride’s hometown of Englewood, N.J.

Mr. McGee put together a collection of stories from this period, along with 500 photographs, and published them in his 2004 book, “The Divorce Seekers: A Photo Memoir of a Nevada Dude Wrangler.”

While in New Jersey in his 30s, Mr. McGee was offered a job selling Willys Jeeps, discovering he had a talent for sales.

Now seeking to make his mark in business, the couple and their four children in 1952 moved to San Anselmo, where he bought and operated Circle Q Bar-B-Q at 726 San Anselmo Ave. through 1954. He then landed a job importing wire and steel products, later becoming the lead importer on the West Coast.

In 1958, he embarked on a career in TV programming sales and marketing. His first job was with Allied Artists’ television arm before he went to work for the Independent Television Corporation, a British company founded by British media mogul Sir Lew Grade that later became an ABC subsidiary.

He moved into management with his job at KBHK-TV in San Francisco in 1968, then, at U.S. Communications, worked for KEMO-TV in San Francisco and WATL-TV in Atlanta.

In 1971, Joan and Mr. McGee separated, and he moved to San Francisco, where he launched Broadcast Marketing Co. from his apartment. During that time, he wrote nine how-to books on broadcast sales and created the first nationally syndicated, monthly co-op advertising information service, Co-Opportunities.

He met Sandra Koniecski Von Bauschinger in 1981, marrying in 1986.

Mr. McGee went on to win Broadcast Pioneer’s 1982 Pioneer Award before selling the co-op ad service in 1984 and retiring to Incline Village, Nev., with Sandra. In 1986, he was honored for his achievements by the Builders of Broadcasting.

Mr. McGee was a member of Broadcast Legends, the Military Writers Society of America the Western Writers of America and the National Association of Atomic Veterans.

His book “Pacific Express: The Critical Role of Military Logistics in World War II” is on the Marine Corps Commandants’ reading list for all officers and enlisted Marines. “The Solomons Campaigns, 1942-1943: From Guadalcanal to Bougainville” won the Military Writers Society of America Silver Medal Award for History in 2018.

In 2003, Mr. McGee became legally blind from macular degeneration and could no longer drive. He and Sandra moved from Butterfly Beach in Santa Barbara to one of the Belvedere Land Co. apartments in 2005 so he could walk on his own to many services.

Two years ago, the McGees moved to Napa Valley to prepare for his move into Veterans Home of California in Yountville. He died before a place for him opened up.

Mr. McGee is survived by Sandra McGee, his wife of 38 years; four children by his first marriage to the late Joan Allison McGee Wagner — Lucy Haynes of Ukiah, Betsy McGee Clarke of Larkspur, William Allison McGee of Alameda and Katherine McGee of Idaho; and a granddaughter, Susan Haynes of Palo Alto. His two sisters, Doris Watson and Betty Mattson, and his brother, Robert S. McGee, predeceased him.

At his request, no services will be held; his remains will be placed at Arlington National Cemetery. Donations may be sent to Hospice by the Bay, 17 E. Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Larkspur, CA, 94904.

Deirdre McCrohan has reported on Tiburon local government and community issues for more than 30 years. Reach her at 415-944-4634.


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