By Randy Harrington
Bill Warnisher died Aug. 25 while battling acute leukemia. It was one day after his birthday. He was 62. And when I think of him now, he seems like Gandhi, if Gandhi were handsome and played guitar.
Bill was a calm, compassionate man who floated through life making people better in every conversation. Yet he did not shy away from confronting the darkest aspects of crime and abuse as an assistant district attorney for Lane County.
If you knew Bill, you loved Bill. If you are just hearing about his passing, you are probably saying, “No way!” Welcome to the tribe of denial. I still half expect to see a text from him, letting me know he is OK, and sharing the new features of his cosmic smart phone.
I met Bill in 1991 at the Oregon Country Fair, where he was rolling (I know what you’re thinking) Tibetan dumplings at a food booth called Mama’s Momos. We both enjoyed talking with Drupju, a Tibetan lama who, along with Judge Ann Aiken, would marry Bill to Kristi Anderson in 1996. It was at the Fair that Bill offered me his drug of choice: a quality gin and tonic with fresh limes. After a 16-hour shift, he would offer an understated toast, “It’s a good life.”
Bill was one of those guys who knew everybody. He had an incredible ability to fit in, bring laughter and show up for others in need — without expectation for a return. Compassion was never a transaction, and it was never switched off. It was something he learned from his parents.
Bill emulated his father’s calm, contended demeanor. His mom stoked fires of logic, debate and justice. There were six kids in the Warnisher household in Fullerton, California, and they were constantly taking in people who needed shelter. Around 1980, 22-year-old Bill headed to Europe with a group of friends and made a living busking with Charlie Powell.
He eventually traveled for five years through Asia and Greece. He found a special connection with Nepal. No doubt this “grand tour” is where he crafted his pervasive sense of cool and his stunning musical ability. He could make a guitar sing and cry — blues, folk, rock, jazz, you name it. Maybe you were lucky enough to see him play with his band Monroe Street. He developed compassion, global perspective and lifetime friends.
The desire to make a difference through the law called him home in 1989. He attended law school at the University of Oregon and interned with Judge Gordon Cottrell. He watched court every day and discovered his way to make a difference — as a prosecutor.
But Bill was a different kind of prosecutor. His reputation among defense attorneys was stellar. He was known for unflinching integrity and a relentless pursuit of the truth rather than victory. Mike Pugh recalls him as always respectful, always calm: “Bill was a champion for the victims.”
This is not an obit. This is a call for all of us, with a tip of the hat to Gandhi, to be the Bill we want to see in the world. We need that more than ever.
Randy Harrington is the CEO of Extreme Arts and Sciences, a consulting firm focused on digital strategy. He has lived in Eugene since 1989. Donations can be made in Bill Warnisher’s name to the Mount Pisgah Arboretum at mountpisgaharboretum.com and the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute.