Willow Bill – a real dear | NevadaAppeal.com

Willow Bill – a real dear

TERI VANCE
Fremont Elementary School third-graders join 'Willow' Bill Goulardt in raising the willow reindeer they just completed. Willow Bill visited 16 area classrooms making the reindeer that are now on display at the Capitol. Rick Gunn/Nevada Appeal
ALL |

After a car crash left him with six broken ribs, Bill Goulardt’s doctor cautioned him against making his annual trip to Carson City.

But the man known as “Willow Bill” would not be convinced.

“You don’t just put it off,” he said. “Would Santa do that?”

So he’s spent the last couple of weeks in area schools making the 16 willow reindeer which are now on display on the Capitol lawn.

For six years, Willow Bill has been methodically leading students through each step of making the holiday creatures out of sticks collected from Nevada, Idaho, Oregon, Montana and California – each state lending its own color.

And like his Jolly Elf mentor, Willow Bill says his inspiration comes from the soft voices of children.

Long before he became the guy who brings a sack full of sticks and, with help from the students, transforms them into willow reindeer – and before those reindeer were displayed on the Capitol lawn – he was a young father with a knack for making furniture.

Troubled by a complicated divorce with a messy custody battle, Willow Bill was staying with his friend, Chris Whitbeck, in Washoe Valley. He agreed to baby-sit Whitbeck’s daughter, Jasmine, one afternoon in 1998 soon after having moving to Oregon from Carson City.

He set Jasmine up to watch “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” then went outside to work on a piece of willow furniture.

“Little Jas comes out, it’s snowing, she’s got no shoes on and she looks at me and says, ‘Billy, why don’t you make a reindeer?'” he recalled. “It was that question from a 3-year-old that put me where I am today. Literally.”

He made his first reindeer that night. It took him about an hour and a half – now he can make one in about 20 minutes.

He went home and made eight more reindeer to decorate his shop, Wonderous Willow Works, in Wheeler, Ore. After returning from another trip, he found five of them had sold.

“I never even put a price on them,” he said. “I kind of tripped on that.”

The next year, he arranged to make reindeer in the Carson City Head Start class of his son, Billy, known as Little Willow to some.

Letting each child hold the drill to fashion the different parts of the deer, Willow Bill captured the 4-year-olds’ attention for more than an hour.

“The teacher asked me how I did it,” he said. “I had no idea what I had just done.”

Soon his friends began requesting that he also visit their children’s classrooms.

“That’s all Willow Bill needs to be asked and he’ll go.”

He’s become a regular at his son’s Seeliger Elementary School, Jasmine’s Pleasant Valley Elementary School and at Jacks Valley Elementary School, where another friend, Andrew Bell’s daughter, Carrina, attends.

He also visits about 40 other schools and institutions throughout Nevada, Oregon, California and New York.

“I love it when he comes,” said Principal Laurel Terry, who presented him with a card reading, “Willow Bill – A real dear,” after his Thursday visit to Seeliger. “He is so excellent with the kids and so loving with them. He engages them right away and is educational, too. He models everything I could ever hope a teacher would.”

The physical antithesis of the bearded bearer of gifts, Willow Bill has olive skin, a slight frame and wears his black hair tied in long ponytail down his back.

However, he does possess the spirit of Santa, and is even gaining some of his notoriety.

“I walk down the streets of New York City and people say, ‘Willow Bill, what’s up?'” he said. “It’s pretty cool.”

But he’s quick to give the credit to Billy, 10, Jasmine, 9, and Carrina, 9.

“The reality is, it was these kids who set me up here,” he said. “People say, don’t forget the ones who made you. I never will. And I don’t even really know what they made, but I like it.”

And he has no qualms about admitting his best advice came from a little girl.

“If you open up your eyes and open up your heart, you can hear and see things most people don’t.”

Contact features editor Teri Vance at tvance@nevadaappeal.com or at 881-1272.