By JANET HEIM
11:54 AM AKST, November 10, 2012
William “Bill” Renner grew up in Hagerstown’s West End, one of eight children. He knew what it was like to grow up poor and hoped for more.
Bill saw higher education as a ticket to a better life, and after graduating from Hagerstown High School in 1935, went on to earn an engineering degree from the Detroit School of Engineering, then additional degrees in Colorado and Wisconsin.
“He did it on his own,” said longtime neighbor Laura Bowers of Hagerstown.
Bill’s background in mechanical engineering gave him the opportunity to work at Fairchild Industries after earning his bachelor’s degree. In between breaks for more college, he worked at Pangborn and for a short time at Fairchild before settling in for a 32-year career at Grove Manufacturing.
Bill retired in 1985 at age 69 as executive vice president of engineering. He traveled all over the globe for Grove to the sites of crane accidents.
It was his job to reconstruct the accidents to determine the cause, said Joan Bowers of Hagerstown, a longtime neighbor who thought of Bill as a grandfather.
At the age of 6, Bill first meet Denise Weller, who lived in his West End neighborhood and was three years younger.
Bill took her for a ride on his bicycle, and after he accidentally tipped her off the bike, Denise’s father said he didn’t want her going anywhere near Bill. She didn’t pay much attention to him after that.
It was about 18 years before Bill ran into Denise at a West End pharmacy getting a soda. He bought them both sodas, the start of a long love affair.
The couple dated for about six years before getting married. Bill was 30 and wanted to finish his education and be able to afford a house before settling down.
Denise’s parents didn’t approve of Bill, Laura said. The day Bill and Denise got married, Aug. 20, 1946, she told her mother she was going on vacation with Bill. Her mother objected since they weren’t married.
The couple got married at Washington Square United Methodist Church in Hagerstown, then headed to Wildwood, N.J., for their honeymoon. Denise, whom Bill lovingly called “Toots,” called her mother to let her know they had gotten married.
Denise’s father had passed away before she got married. It would be another year until Toots, a timekeeper at Fairchild, moved into the Virginia Avenue home that Bill built in 1947 because her mother couldn’t afford to live on her own.
Toots finally told her mother she was moving in with her husband and that she was welcome as well. Denise’s mother lived with the couple for the rest of her life.
Bill was born with an intestinal defect, and his parents were told he wouldn’t live beyond the age of 10. Instead, he was the last surviving member of his family.
He served in the U.S. Army during World War II for a year. He never served overseas, but his job was as a flight engineer with logistics, working as a co-pilot as planes were moved around the country, said Stanley Taylor of Hagerstown, who was friends with Bill for 35 years.
Intestinal issues resulted in Bill being discharged so he could have surgery and because he couldn’t eat the military rations provided.
Bill and Toots never had children. Instead, they helped families in need in the community, and also shared a soft spot for animals, especially the Boston terriers they had over the years.
“What he made, he spent back on other people,” Joan said. “They were very loving, giving people.”
Laura remembers that for many years at Christmastime, the Renners would load up their car to the brim and take Christmas to a family with six children in Boonsboro.
Bill also was dedicated to the Ali Ghan Shriners, which is how he met Stanley, whom he called “Pal.” They had taken local children to the burn unit at Shriners Hospitals for Children in Philadelphia, either driving the Shriners van or their own vehicles, Stanley said.
When a local teacher’s son got burned, Bill made sure the boy received the medical care he needed in a Shriners hospital burn unit, at no cost to the family, Joan said.
“He enjoyed the different organizations he belonged to,” Stanley said, highlighting Bill’s service as past potentate of Ali Ghan Shriners and as director of the Royal Order of Jesters.
When Laura and Tom Bowers and their two children, Joan and John, moved into the house across the street from the Renners in the early 1970s, it was the start of a friendship that became much more.
They became Bill’s “adopted family,” and the feeling was mutual.
“I knew my grandmothers, but I never had the opportunity to have a grandfather,” Joan said. “What a great grandfather he was.”
Bill wrote his own obituary. Laura took care of the funeral arrangements and delivered Bill’s written obituary to the funeral home, unaware that she and her family had been listed as Bill’s surviving family.
“From the time I moved in here, he was special to me. The way he treated me,” Laura said. “Pap was like a father to me. This has been very hard on me.”
Laura’s own father died in 1944 and her mother passed away 23 years ago.
“We were his adopted family,” Joan said. “That was his choice.”
For more than a decade, Bill cared for Toots through breast cancer, a stroke and bone cancer. He insisted on caring for her at home, with Laura’s help.
“Mom took care of Mr. and Mrs. Renner like a daughter would,” Joan said.
When Toots died 12 years ago, Bill was devastated.
“When she passed away, his world ended,” Joan said.
Laura said she took him to the emergency room because he became unresponsive. He was hospitalized for three days and the doctor said there was nothing physically wrong with him, that his catatonic state was caused by a broken heart and that he needed to get re-engaged with life.
That was the beginning of Bill joining the Bowers family for dinner every night. Laura’s husband, Tom, would take Bill out for breakfast and a drive most mornings.
When Tom was in a serious car accident, Laura said Bill was worried sick and visited Tom daily, often bringing food for the family with him.
For the past year and a half, Laura had cared for Bill as age caught up with him. He did have in-home care providers, but preferred Laura’s cooking. She cooked three meals a day for him and kept him company while he ate.
“Mom was his chauffeur, his cook, his house cleaner,” Joan said.
Bill eventually went into an assisted-living facility and finally a nursing home.
Described by Laura as a “snazzy dresser,” Bill was known for his manners and his kind ways.
“He was very easy to get along with,” Laura said. “He was a gentleman.”
Joan said Bill could have built a life far from Hagerstown, but thinks he stayed here to help others.
“I think he saw a great need here,” Joan said.
Editor’s note: Each Sunday, The Herald-Mail runs “A Life Remembered.” Each story in this continuing series takes a look back — through the eyes of family, friends, co-workers and others — at a member of the community who died recently. Today’s “A Life Remembered” is about William O. Renner, who died Nov. 3 at the age of 96. His obituary was published in the Nov. 5 and 6 editions of The Herald-Mail.
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