Renowned Western artist Bill Reese made the decision to live life on his own terms — with Alpha-1.
I loved growing up on a cattle ranch – I was born in South Dakota and raised on my dad’s ranch before we moved to Washington State, on the dry side of the Cascade Mountains, and continued life as cattle ranchers.
It’s a great way of life. In addition to cattle, we also had an apple orchard. So I grew up picking apples and herding and feeding cattle and cutting hay. You learn what hard work is all about, so you’re never afraid of it. Then, when you go out in life, the hard work of making a living isn’t much of a problem.
I’ve always been an outdoorsman. And of course, I loved horses. I loved to ride them and I loved to paint them. I’ve been a painter and sculptor since the early 1960s. I started by painting outdoors. In the early days, I was one of the few people who did that, although now more people do it. I prefer it to painting in a studio. I used to go up into the high country — the Rockies — to paint. I was an art major at Washington State University and worked as a sign painter for 13 years until I got enough of a following to make my living from my art.
When I was 41, I started getting short of breath. That was in 1971. I was treated for asthma, but it just got worse and worse. After seven years of misdiagnosis, I was tested for cystic fibrosis, which is rare for adults. Then they tested me for Alpha-1. That’s what it was.
But the doctor told me not to worry about it. He said it was no big deal. I did wonder why they’d bother testing me for something that was no big deal, but I didn’t really question it at the time. They kept treating me for asthma, but I tried to explain that it didn’t feel like asthma. I was told that the disease was very rare, and that it would affect my lungs the same way that smoking would. As long as I didn’t smoke, I’d be okay.
In 1989, my brother was also diagnosed with Alpha-1. His doctor put him on Prolastin right away. By now, I had a new doctor who put me on Prolastin, too. It saved my life. I’ve been on oxygen since 2000.
When I was first diagnosed, I kept being told that I was the only one in the state of Washington to have the disease. But my wife was skeptical. “You may be one in a million,” she told me, “but you’re not that rare!” She did a ton of research and legwork and found 30 Alphas in Washington. So we started the first large support group in the nation.
The disease affected my work. Most people don’t realize that working on a painting involves a constant series of rapid-fire decisions. You reinvent things every time you start a new piece. That requires brain power and concentration. And as you lose oxygen in your bloodstream over time, your brain just doesn’t stay sharp enough to make these decisions. So, you slow down. Painting now makes me very tired.
I’ve always been an opportunist. But I’m more like that now. I do the things I want to do. I don’t just think about them or imagine doing them someday. I get on the phone or the Internet and find out how it can be done and just do it.
Nowadays, I mostly work in the studio. I sometimes paint outdoors in the Cascades. They aren’t as high as the Rockies, so it’s easier for me. I’ve also taken up leather carving, which is less intellectually demanding but rewarding. And I learned to play guitar a while back. I play bluegrass music whenever I can. I learned to do these things since I was diagnosed. I’d always wanted to learn them, so I made sure I did it.
I go back a long way with John Walsh. When we were on the Alpha-1 Association board together, we had a brainstorming session and decided we needed to start a pharmacy. Out of that grew AlphaNet and the Alpha-1 Foundation. I was on the Foundation board for about six years.
When I was diagnosed, I started planning to die. Then I realized that I should start planning to live. I thought about all the things I didn’t want to miss, and set out to do them.
A friend of mine was recently diagnosed with a lung disease and said, “My God, Bill, I can’t rope calves anymore!”
I said, “Why not?”
Do it until you can’t, then find something you have always wanted to do and make time to do it. Restructure your life.
Reese was featured on the cover of the Winter 2007 issue of Alpha-1-To-One magazine, where this article first appeared.
Reese died in June 2010 at his home in East Wenatchee. He was 71. A memorial service was held at the Cashmere Riverside Center, 201 Riverside Drive, Cashmere, WA. In lieu of flowers, the family collected donations to the Alpha-1 Foundation or the Cashmere Museum and Historic Pioneer Village. His story and his message is still carried out into the Alpha-1 community to live life to the fullest.
View Reese’s art.