I’ve been to many creative funerals and memorial services, but just went to my first celebration of life event held in a bar.
The gathering was in honor of William K. “Big Bill” Baldwin, who started a number of taverns in Albuquerque. He died at the age of 80 on October 5. The news obituary in the paper said there would be a celebration of life at the Horse & Angel Tavern. I tracked down a phone number for his son Billy and asked if I could attend and write about it, and he consented.
Upon arrival, I was given a Warsteiner wrist band and two drink tickets. Waitresses took drink orders and brought them to visitors. Two photo boards had been set up, featuring pictures of Big Bill throughout his life. A dozen beautiful flower arrangements that had been sent to the family were arranged along a window near Big Bill’s regular table in a cozy corner of the bar. The flowers flanked a TV set showing CNBC programming. At least a dozen TV sets were going throughout the bar, all set to different cable channels for sports, comedy, and news.
Big Bill had lunch every day at the Horse & Angel Tavern, at his regular table. A plaque had been posted on the wall next to that table: For “Big Bill” 1929 -2009. A “reserved for private party” sign on the table kept the space open for family. There, I met his wife Bettye Jo and daughter Jill. Son Billy was all over the place, talking to many, many people and exchanging hugs and handshakes.
Two large tables near Big Bill’s regular spot were laden with a buffet featuring all sorts of wonderful food: shrimp cocktail, sliced ham, hot wings, sandwiches, green chile, hot casseroles, veggies and dip, cake, baklava, fruit and more. More dishes came out of the kitchen as the event rolled on.
The bar filled up with many friends who came to wish the family well. It almost looked like a regular day in a bar, with lots of mixing and mingling. There was no formal program or presentation, just lots of good conversation among people who knew the man and his family.
Nathan Martz, one of the folks I spoke with at the event, had lunch with Big Bill at his regular spot every Tuesday, and said he was a great storyteller. Todd McMillan grew up knowing the family and now works at the Stone Face Tavern, one of the family’s other bars. He said Big Bill talked to everyone and was kind to so many people. A number of folks said they were long time neighbors.
When I finally got a word with Billy Baldwin, he told me that his father had been cremated and the ashes would be scattered in various places that Big Bill loved, such as San Diego and Canada.
Big Bill didn’t drink or smoke, which makes you wonder why he went into the liquor and tavern business. But he was a good man who will be missed by many, and this celebration of life event was a most appropriate send off. His friends gathered in the spot where everybody knew his name and his nature to bid him a fond farewell.