The Passing of James Alban Bill (1939-2015): An Appreciation

He was for the longest time my buddy. We often laughed at the thought that we could have been twin brothers from different mothers, despite the fact that Jim was from Wisconsin and I was from Virginia. We were almost the exact same age. We were U.S. Army veterans of the same enlistment program. We each bore scars at the same place on our right knees from nearly identical high school athletic injuries.

We were both note-taking aficionados, opting, as such, to write most, if not all, of our empirical reports and publications based less, if at all, on library research but rather on firsthand accounts, which we knew at the time were priceless. Indeed, they resulted from the fact that we benefited from privileged access to meetings and briefings with some of Arabia and the Gulf’s top policymakers, decision makers, and strategic analysts that few others enjoyed.

In the 1970s, the two of us even co-choreographed nationwide public speaking engagements for a former guerrilla leader-turned-government official. To this day, the official has never forgotten or been unappreciative of the experience. In June 1982, in the company of the late UT-Austin geographer Paul English, we travelled together to Arabia and the Gulf – to Oman, then the UAE, then Bahrain, and then Saudi Arabia.

Each of us was and remained to the end a baseball freak; before we even met we had separately memorized the major league players’ names of a bygone era, their positions, their teams, their batting averages, their pitching records, their nicknames, their greatest feats – you name it. Often, instead of addressing each other in written letters or telephone calls with our real names, we used made-up ones like Duke Snider, Jerry Priddy, Dizzy and Paul Dean, Jackie Robinson, Harry “The Cat” Brecheen, Richie Ashburn, Del Ennis, and Willie Mays.

When Jim in 1976 invited me to teach at UT-Austin in the university’s Center for Middle East Studies a course on Arabia and the Gulf, I gladly did so and enjoyed it thoroughly, not least because it provided an opportunity for our respective families to get to know one another and, now and again, a chance for us to play a pickup baseball game with six players – his two children and mine plus ourselves – on one of the local diamonds.

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