Photo Credit: BP
Let us set the stage.
We both had planned a street shoot the other day. The plan was to take a favorite route in the city – Pike Place Market through to Westlake, up and down Pike and Pine St. The light in the beginning of the day was great but by the time we got out to shoot, it had become more overcast. We both didn’t have our Mophie packs and we both started out with less than 100%, with V starting out with a whopping 23%. We monitored the batt levels and did the best we could.
V: If you’ve ever gone on an IG walk with me, you know I generally come unprepared with a low battery and decaffeinated. This day was certainly no different.
B: By the time V hit under 10% it was time to juice up. Note: If V’s phone didn’t need a charge, our story would’ve never happened, so we decided to hit the Starbucks, power up, and catch up.
V: While Brad was off being gentlemanly, purchasing our coffee, I sat at a table next to Bill. He glanced over at me with a warm smile. He complimented me on my chucks and said he wore the same ones when he was a youngster. We laughed about how styles just recycle themselves, but agreed my kicks were classics. I noticed his formal wear and how he seemed out of place in our “Keens and Northface” city, but I appreciated the fact that someone would get dressed in a full suit and go to a local coffee shop to simply work on his computer.
B: Before I sat down I saw Bill next to the table that V had been sitting at. He was real focused on his typing, tapping away at the keys, one finger at a time style. He also had a great hat and was dressed up real dapper like. I opened up ProCamera, focused, set exposure and took a couple shots. Figured I had to catch this scene. Thought this would be the end of it, not knowing that the conversation with Bill would give backstory to the photo. Initially V and I chatted it up and Bill paid no mine to us, nor us to him. At one point, he got up and asked us to watch his laptop and flip phone as he needed to go across the street. We did. We continued to chop it up and again paid no mine when he returned. I cracked a joke that I had used his minutes to call Uruguay (chuckle here, chuckle there) but for the most part that was it.
Meet J. William Oldenburg.
Bill started to pack up his things and on his way out he wished us a blessed day and before he got too far, BP asked him for his name.
“Bill, Bill Oldenburg.”
Little did we know that we was speaking to a billionaire. Well someone who used to be a billionaire.
Bill said, “Have you heard of the movie Sleepless in Seattle?” Of course we did. Tom Hanks. Meg Ryan. The house on Lake Union. “Well I was a part of the production crew of it. As a matter of fact, Tom is supposed to come here in a couple of weeks because we are looking to do another movie, except this time it’ll be based on my life.”
Bill proceeded to return to his seat. He had this sparkle in his eye. It could be that he was thinking, “Hmmm these are going to be easy prey for me to con.” or “Here’s a chance to be able to tell my story.”
His story led from Sleepless to Seattle, to the hat he was wearing. “This hat, this hat was given to me by my close friend, Frank Sinatra.” At first we laughed, thinking he was pulling our leg. But then he continued on with his story in great detail, genuinely and with a tenderness in his voice toward his “friend.” He then mentioned to us that Elizabeth Taylor so loved a necklace he had bought for his wife, and that he allowed a duplicate to be made as long as she promised not to wear it until his wife had first worn hers in public. He told us of a quote that his close friend, Katherine Hepburn had told him, “The most valuable antiques are old friends.” He told us of his big galas and having Wayne Newton sing at these events. He talked of his close friendship to Orson Wells.
Photo from Bill: (L) Orson Wells, (C) Bill Oldenburg, (R) Wayne Newton
He continued on, sharing about how in the early 1980’s he had purchased the USFL LA Express football team with whom they drafted Steve Young before making a deal to send the star to the San Francisco 49ers. He told us about being the only person in the world who was not afraid to challenge Donald Trump, even being quoted in Sports Illustrated as saying, “I’m used to winning, to nothing less than becoming the best,” he told Sports Illustrated. “Donald Trump can get all the press he wants, but when it comes to business, he can’t carry my socks.”
His stories were thoughtful and when he spoke of them he had a “reminiscing” tone about him.
However, it wasn’t just about the stars. He told us stories about his family too. He showed us a photograph of his daughter in her wedding gown, as she had recently been married in Seattle, and spoke highly of the groom. The photo was on his iPhone that his daughter had gifted him, though it was apparent that his flip phone and older laptop were already a challenge for him to use. He showed us quotes he wrote, showed us a paper printout of Lazarus, his dog who had recently passed away. He truly loved his family; four daughters and his wife and “soul mate,” Marla.
Clearly for him his world was big, but was nothing without his daughters and his wife. He went from working at a bank after high school and being a vacuum salesman to a real estate mogul, football team owner worth billions, to losing everything. His story is of rags to riches to rags.
Photo Credit: Victoria
V: It was fascinating to talk to someone who was so charismatic and seemed incredibly genuine. While he was sharing with us, I noticed his suit being nice, but that it desperately needed to be dry-cleaned. I remember trying to sort through that in my head, how could a billionaire’s shirt be anything but stark white and without wrinkles? I brushed it off, remembering he had “just moved into town and was still adjusting to the area,” so maybe he just hadn’t found time to get it taken care of. He mostly spoke to Brad, which I didn’t mind. BP tried to include me in the conversation, but it was very clear who Bill was aiming for. He offered us a photography gig during his next event, asking for our contact information to let us know more. If both of our parking times hadn’t expired, we probably would have sat and listened to his endless supply of star-studded stories and his grand future plans.
As Brad and I walked out of the store, we glanced at each other with somewhat skeptical grins. Had we just randomly met a billionaire who wanted us to stay in contact and possibly shoot for his next grand event? Weirder things have happened. We said our goodbyes and ran off to our cars, praying the parking attendant hadn’t found us yet.
Within several hours BP had already done his research and learned more about our dear friend Bill. He indeed had a fascinating story, though much sadder that the one he had painted for us. . I had mixed feelings about our encounter after I read the countless blogs and testimonies about a “cheat, con artist, liar and theif.” I didn’t want to believe it. He had gained much and lost much. Walking away, I am still glad we got to meet Bill. His story is his own, we all have made poor choices at times, and regardless of his path and mistakes, he is still holding on to a dream. If he does write that autobiography he spoke of, I will buy it in hopes that its a new chapter where he can build a new future, recognizing his past and learning from it.
B: I got so caught up afterwards trying to figure out this story. Is it real? Is it made up? Are we getting conned? We weren’t the only ones who had met Bill and have heard his stories (read the comments). Like V said, I was on fire, googling him and finding this and that. The stories were true of course omitting the federal charges, and lavish spending, and other business not to do’s that LOTS of folks did in the 1980’s. It felt like V and I was in his movie.
Then I realized I forgot about living and enjoying the moment. You know those stolen moments we had with this man. I’ve had many opportunities meeting people in passing. Strangers with amazing stories. Some believable, some not. It didn’t really matter. V and I got to share time with a nice man who wanted to share stories with us. Did he hurt us? No. He simply shared his story.
It made me think how often than not, we forget to sit down and listen (or read). The world we live in moves so fast. What’s news one day, is history the next. What’s trendy one day, is out of style the next. It moves fast. We forget sometimes how these little interactions can teach us a lesson or even better, help us remember the lessons we’ve learned. Now I’m not saying go find your “Bill.” What I am saying though, is remind yourself that every moment should be cherished. Every story you are told will have meaning even if not at that precise moment. Strangers, friends, family members…whomever will enter or leave your life for a reason. This time with V and Bill reminded me of that.
The title of this article is “The Unraveling of a Billionaire.” It’s an actual title from another article on our friend Bill. But the title sounds like the story is finished which like V, I think and hope that it isn’t.
Bill already titled his autobiography which I find is most fitting to end this article: “Not Ready To Land.”
He’s not done yet. He’s not ready to come down to earth. He wants to fly and continue to chase his dreams.
Bill, hats off to you friend.
“It’s such a shame to land with so much fuel left in my tanks”
“Life is a miracle, and the right to live is a gift. It is wrapped in a ribbon, woven with dreams, and whether you are very young or very old, life is filled with wonder and surprises.”
“I believe success is the culmination of winning, losing false starts, confusion, and the DETERMINATION to keep going anyway.”
– J. William Oldenburg
*Hint: Fast Forward to 20:00 min to see Bill and hear his keynote*