Old Mission Peninsula resident Bill Cole passed away this week. I’ve been thinking over the past few days how best to describe Bill and his enormous impact on our OMP community, and words escape me. But I’ll do my best, with help from others who knew and worked with him.
After a long career as a math professor at Michigan State University, Bill and his wife JoAnn retired to the OMP in 2000, but I really didn’t meet him until I began publishing Old Mission Gazette five years ago and started writing about the restoration of the historic Dougherty House in the village of Old Mission.
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At the time, I knew there was a group of volunteers – the Peter Dougherty Society – working tirelessly to bring the house to life again, while honoring its monumental past (read more about the Dougherty House history here).
Bill was a founding member of the Society and spent 15 years guiding the restoration of the house, which included re-roofing with cedar shakes, repairing and replacing all the windows and doors, replacing the foundation and so much more. Here’s a photo of the foundation project in 2015.
The amount of time and effort that Bill and his team devoted to the restoration is nothing short of astounding. If you’ve toured the house, you know what I mean. The group made the decision to close the house for tours this year because of the Covid-19 pandemic, but work has continued behind the scenes.
To say Bill was the leader of the project would be true, but he also had the ability to engage other people in the project, sometimes without them even knowing that’s what he was doing. Susan Feiger, a member of the OMP Historical Society (OMPHS) and co-owner of Old Barn Antiques with her husband Walt, says it best:
“He was the driving force in getting the house, outbuildings and grounds in order,” says Susan. “So much detail, work and planning on his part. He knew how to lead the way, how to inspire, and how to delegate.”
And as OMPHS member Judy Weaver notes, he was also a walking encyclopedia when it came to all things Dougherty.
“Bill Cole was passionate about the Dougherty House, and his wife, JoAnn supported him every step of the way,” notes Judy. “His passion resulted in magnificent achievement. Bill was an encyclopedic resource for knowledge about the Dougherty-Rushmore house and all its construction details, as well as the historical context for its existence.”
She adds, “He and his band of willing construction volunteers were able to do so much more for the house than any professional group could have done. Bill was discerning enough to know when to hire professional experts, and when to know his team could do the work.”
Here’s Bill giving a tour of the house on Log Cabin Day in 2017.
OMPHS member Connie Sargent, who organizes the docents for the Dougherty House tours, says it’s remarkable for someone to create such a lasting legacy after they retire.
“What do you say about a man that had the vision to complete a project such as the Dougherty House?” notes Connie. “I mentioned to his son, ‘How many people leave a legacy after they retire?’ Most people leave one during work. Instead of becoming focused on “me” at retirement, Bill focused on a project that would benefit so many people and this community.”
And as OMPHS member Barb Berthelsen notes, “Bill’s accomplishments will result in great historical perspective for many. When people came through the house, he told a story that made you part of the past, and encouraged you to be a part of the future. He sacrificed everything to get it done. His loss will be felt.”
Well said, Barb. I’ll add that I’m not sure he knew just how valuable his knowledge was to the rest of us. When I asked him to give a presentation on the Dougherty House to the Old Mission Women’s Club in 2018, he humbly accepted, but wasn’t sure he’d be up to the task.
You definitely were, Bill, and the ladies loved hearing about the house in your own words.
Bill was always willing to spread the word about the Dougherty House restoration. Here he is doing just that with OMPHS member Amy Lyman at the Old Mission Art Fair in 2017.
I think what I’ll remember most about Bill is his ability to make me laugh every time I saw him. He brought joy to everything I saw him do, whether it was showing me around the ice house on Log Cabin Day or moving furniture at the Big Jon warehouse on Peninsula Drive in 2018, where some of the Dougherty House artifacts were stored. Something, he joked at the time, he was not supposed to be doing given his recent health issues. (We made him let us help him, JoAnn.)
Judy mentioned above that Bill worked with a devoted group of volunteers on the Dougherty House, and he was always quick to remind people that the project was a group effort. At the dedication of the house in 2019, he praised everyone involved with the restoration, including all the volunteers, donors, members of the Old Mission Peninsula Historical Society, and the Peter Dougherty Society board of directors, past and present.
The core group of restoration volunteers who worked countless house – 3000+ hours each – included Brad Lyman, Jim Hall, Chris Rieser, Butch Moring, Marty Klein and Bill Cole. Patti Rudolph provided cookies to the team every day they worked, and even stockpiled cookies for them while she was away.
Jim Hall recalls his time spent working on the house with Bill.
“Being actively involved in the Dougherty House Project for the last dozen years, I was able to witness first hand how effectively Bill guided the project from the early years to its opening and dedication as a museum and historic center here on the Peninsula,” he says. “He and his wife, JoAnn, provided the unwavering support and commitment at every turn and through every phase of the project. He will be greatly missed, but the results of his leadership leaves us with a lasting visual expression of the history of this Peninsula, and many friends.”
OMPHS member Anita Klein adds that Bill’s work went far beyond the actual construction and restoration of the house.
“Without both his and JoAnn’s dedication, we wouldn’t have the wonderful museum we have today,” she says. “He didn’t just motivate us all. He wrote grants, organized wonderful fundraisers, and was hands on at the house almost every day of the week. We will all miss him so much, it’s just not the same at the Dougherty House without him.”
Anita sent along a few photos of Bill and other volunteers working at the Dougherty House.
Here are Bill and JoAnn Cole at the Dougherty House Dedication Ceremony in June 2019.
Bill will be greatly missed in our OMP community, and his dedication to the Dougherty House and history of the Old Mission Peninsula will be felt for generations to come. Thank you, Bill, for everything.
A celebration of Bill’s life will be held on Sunday, Sept. 27, 1 – 3 p.m., at the Peninsula Room behind the Jolly Pumpkin on Peninsula Drive. Memorial contributions may be directed to the Peter Dougherty Society, P. O. Box 101, Old Mission, MI 49673, or the Old Mission Congregational Church Building Fund, P.O. Box 91, Old Mission, MI 49673.
Here is Bill’s obituary from Legacy.com:
William “Bill” Lee Cole, 79 of Old Mission Peninsula and formerly of Holt, MI passed away September 16, 2020 at his home.
Bill was born on September 18, 1940 in Pontiac to the late Raymond Lee and Margaret Virginia (Danton) Cole. He graduated from Waterford High School, received his Bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University and his Master’s and Ph.D degrees from Wayne State University.
Bill spent 30 years as a professor in Mathematics Education at Michigan State University, including extension programs around the world. In addition to teaching at the university level, Bill co-authored a series of K-9 math books for Houghton Mifflin, many of which are still in use today.
With his wife, JoAnn, Bill retired to the Old Mission Peninsula in 2000, where he became involved in the Old Mission Peninsula Historical Society, which led him to become a founding member of the Peter Dougherty Society, leading the 15-year restoration effort of the Dougherty Mission House. He was a member of the Old Mission Congregational Church and found comfort in his faith. Spending time with his family was a joy and important to Bill.
Bill ran track at MSU and was a lifelong Varsity “S” Club member. He was an enthusiastic Michigan Spartan University sports fan, particularly Michigan State Hockey, serving as President of the MSU Blue Line Club for several years.
Bill is survived by his beloved wife of 57 years, JoAnn (Kokmeyer); daughter Dana Lee Cole; and son Danton Cole, his wife Debbie and their three daughters, Ashton, Madeleine and Payton. He is also survived by his sister Barbara Kunse, her husband Ron, sister-in-law Diane Cole, and many nieces and nephews. Bill was preceded in death by his brother Charles Cole.
A celebration of Bill’s life will be held on Sunday September 27 from 1:00-3:00 p.m. at the Jolly Pumpkin Restaurant and Brewery on the Old Mission Peninsula in the Peninsula Room. Brief reflections will take place at 2:00.
Memorial contributions may be directed to the Peter Dougherty Society or the Old Mission Congregational Church Building Fund. The family is being cared for by Reynolds Jonkhoff Funeral Home and Cremation Services.