On Saturday night, as I was in the midst of documenting the Kane County Cougars' latest concession offerings, I got a text message from director of public relations Shawn Touney.
"Introduce yourself to Wild Bill, our usher who is right behind you in the purple [shirt]," it read. "He is one of the most special people you'll meet tonight, a great ambassador for us."
It didn't take long for me to find that out first-hand. "Wild Bill" is one Bill Bowers, a 91-year-old usher and World War II veteran who has worked for the Cougars since the 1994 season. I spoke to him as he stood on an aisle behind home plate, directly below the press box, an area of Fifth Third Bank Ballpark in which he's a familiar presence. Throughout our conversation, his eyes sparkled and a warm, lived-in smile was upon his face. This, according to Touney, is his defining characteristic.
"Bill is an individual who just never has a bad day," he told me. "If he has, I've never seen it."
To hear Bowers tell it, his ingrained good nature is a cultivated, hard-earned response to a life which has had more than its share of bad days.
• Read more about Ben's visit to Kane County on the Biz Blog »
"I'm the last of 10 in my family," he said. "It's been a great trial for me, to survive, when you're the last of 10."
A native of Coaldale, Pennsylvania, Bowers was orphaned as a child and, as a result, "wound up all over."
"Being an orphan, that was the toughest part. My brothers and sisters, step-brothers and step-sisters, they went to one home. One brother came with me; the others were a little older. The one brother that came with me, his step-father took him and put him with his children and I was all by myself."
Bowers eventually wound up living with his sister and brother-in-law, earning his "Wild Bill" nickname while playing in neighborhood baseball games.
"I was a young guy. I was a third baseman. I was cocky," he said. "My plays were unbelievable. They would call me 'Wild Bill,' so everybody remembered me as Wild Bill. There are a lot of Bills, so that worked out good."
Bowers began to overcome his difficult circumstances as a young adult, getting a job in the hotel industry through a local businessman who was drawn to his play on the baseball diamond. He joined the Army during World War II, fighting in Europe and obtaining the rank of sergeant.
"I'll never forget the fun we had with that, because it's better to not be afraid when you're a soldier," he said. "I made a lot of good friends."
Bowers's professional career was spent largely as a hotel executive. His post-retirement tenure as a Cougars usher came in response to another difficult time in his life. He had recently been widowed, and his son, Dale, set up the interview with the team. Working in the hyper-social atmosphere of a Minor League ballpark represented an opportunity to stay active and make new friends.
"I get to talk to a lot the people; I get to entertain them. It's wonderful," he said.
Bowers obtained the head usher position after four years on the job, remaining in that role until a severe bout of pneumonia forced him to miss part of 2012 and then the entirety of the 2013 campaign. He said that his faith in God sustained him during that period of illness and that his return to the Cougars in 2014 made him appreciate the job that much more.
"Oh, was it ever emotional. When I came back here, [my co-workers] were all like my brothers and sisters," he said. "They all came up to me, and every one of them gave me a hug. I expected that. Why? Because I never mistreated anyone. Whether you're an usher, or a big businessman, you have to be the top man in your heart by doing the right thing. That's my philosophy -- treat everybody right."
As for the future, Bowers says that, "God willing," he'll remain a Kane County Cougars fixture for years to come.
"I came back here because this is home. This is friendship. This is love."