Willard Eugene Bill's education freed him from the addiction and extreme poverty that racked his childhood. He spent his life in pursuit...

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Willard Eugene Bill’s education freed him from the addiction and extreme poverty that racked his childhood.

He spent his life in pursuit of the same solution for other Native American students — in the classroom, at the state Legislature and Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) and in his role as an activist and board member for numerous education groups.

Mr. Bill became one of the state’s best-known and influential Indian educators. He died Dec. 26 at Swedish Medical Center after a three-year struggle with polymyositis, a progressive muscle disease. He was 69.

He served on the faculty of the University of Washington’s School of Education and Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity. He co-founded the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation and the Washington State Native American Higher Education Consortium. He also taught at Skagit Valley Community College and North Seattle Community College and worked at OSPI.

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Mr. Bill grew up in Puyallup, graduated from Puyallup High School and served in the U.S. Army. He played football at Central Washington University, where he earned his teaching credentials. He returned to Puyallup to teach middle school and eventually earned a master’s degree from Pacific Lutheran University and a doctorate from UW.

For the past several years, Mr. Bill had been working on a history of the Muckleshoot Tribe — the first to be completed by a tribal member, said his son, Willard Bill, Jr.

Mr. Bill’s father was an alcoholic, and Mr. Bill had a “rough life” growing up, said Bill Jr. But he saw education as the key to success.

“He broke out of a lot of cycles that a lot of our people still live with,” he said.

State Rep. Eric Pettigrew, D-Seattle, said Mr. Bill motivated him because he had tackled so many big and difficult issues in his life. “I always felt his presence any time he was a part of an advocacy effort,” Pettigrew said. “I felt like I had to put a little extra into it because I knew he’d be watching.”

Phil Lane Jr., who worked with Mr. Bill at United Indians, described him as a professional and a gentleman who devoted his life to native education because he understood the need for a curriculum with a native perspective. Several people remembered his positive attitude.

Julian Argel took Mr. Bill’s class in the 1980s at UW and later worked with him in the Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity. As a young man, Argel said, Mr. Bill was a friend of his brother’s and served as a role model by graduating from high school, then college — an unusual feat at that time for a Native American man.

“Willard really blazed the way,” he said.

Mr. Bill’s survivors include his wife of 48 years, Mary Ann Bill, and their four children, three of whom grew up to become educators: Willard Bill Jr., Julie Bill Wonderling, Denise Bill and Jennifer Bill Youngman, all of the Seattle area. He is also survived by his sister, Lynn Davis, and many grandchildren, nieces and nephews.

A traditional Native American wake was scheduled for Tuesday evening. The burial is planned at 10 this morning at White Lake Muckleshoot Cemetery on Dogwood Street Southeast in Auburn, followed by a memorial celebration at 1:30 p.m. at University Presbyterian Church, 4540 15th Ave. N.E., Seattle. All friends of Mr. Bill’s are welcome.

The family would appreciate donations to local blood banks in honor of Mr. Bill, whose illness required numerous blood transfusions.

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

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