Mountain West In Memoriam: Bill Sweney

May 26, 2020


Sam Sweney said he started to worry about his dad, Bill, when he didn't hear from him for a few days.

"He hadn't called. It was strange - like I texted him and he didn't text back and usually he's a pretty avid text messenger," he said.

Bill had tested positive for COVID-19 and was at home self-isolating. Sam and his two siblings live in California, so a welfare nurse was checking up on Bill every so often. When Sam didn't hear back from his dad, he called the local hospital. He learned his dad had been admitted.

"Almost right away the doctors there told me that he should be air-vacced to Idaho Falls," he said.

From there, things got worse.

On April 22, at the age of 71, Bill Sweney died.

Bill Sweney on Mount McKinley in Alaska.

It was Earth Day. His younger brother, John Sweney, said he would have enjoyed the irony - Bill loved the outdoors.

"The wilderness, the vistas, the people, the relationships that he built," John said. "Wyoming was where his heart and soul belonged."

Bill was born in Minnesota, then grew up in Massachusetts - all the way up to 6 feet, 8 inches tall. Later in life people would refer to him as the "gentle giant," for his physical presence and kind nature.

His first experience of Wyoming was as a teenager, when he and two of his brothers attended the National Outdoor Leadership School in Lander.

"Bill really took it to heart and took a lot of the National Outdoor Leadership School courses and through those connections and adventures, climbed Alaska's Mount McKinley all the way to the summit and was very proud of that accomplishment," John said.

Bill would go on to become a filmmaker, mostly producing documentaries about the natural world, even earning an Emmy Award for his work on Ted Turner's "Portrait of America" series. John said his brother had a natural storytelling ability that translated to filmmaking. It also made him a good companion.

"My brother could make a friend with anyone - and did, and it wasn't an effort for him," John said. "He just always assumed the best of you, and wanted to know who you were and what you were about. And when you sat with him, even if it was over lunch, or over dinner, he had stories to tell about all the people that he had met and all the adventures that he had had and little things - little stories, little adventures, little encounters."

One story that John said Bill loved to tell was from his time working as a private pilot at the Jackson Hole Airport. There was a passenger whose luggage had been lost. She was upset, to say the least, yelling at Bill as he clacked away on the computer, trying to figure out what exactly had happened.

"And he finally stopped what he was doing," John said. "And he said, 'Ma'am, at the moment there are two people in the world who care where your luggage is. And one of them is rapidly losing interest.'"

Bill Sweney with his nephew, Ben Batchelder in Brazil.
Credit Courtesy

That zest for people and life took him all over the world, as he was able to use flight benefits from his job to fly places. A few years ago, he visited his nephew, Ben Batchelder, in Brazil.

"He had a really warm soul and [was] somewhat fearless, and so he seemed to go to a lot of places up into his very last year. He was not someone to let the grass grow beneath his feet," Batchelder said.

Bill didn't speak Portuguese, but Batchelder said that didn't stop him from going into some of the local shops alone.

"And you know what he did? He took his smartphone and used one of the translation services, so he would say something in English, have it translated into Portuguese. This shopkeeper would listen to the Portuguese and so on," he said, "He was a terrific guy."

Bill's son, Sam, said one of the last times he and his siblings were all together in Wyoming with their dad was for the solar eclipse in 2017. He said he's been thinking a lot about that day.

Bill Sweney as a kid.
Credit Courtesy

"We went to this little trail next to his house and we just dipped our feet in the stream and it was amazing," he recalled. "The best place to watch, no one there. The shadows were super cool everywhere. It was definitely a really spiritual moment."

Sam said it still doesn't feel real that his dad is gone.

"You always know that your parents, that you're gonna have to deal with this someday, right? Death is a part of life," he said. "But this whole pandemic situation made everything so sudden and rapid and detached and impersonal."

The family hasn't been able to plan any kind of memorial yet. But when the time is right, Bill's wishes were to have a big gathering of family and friends somewhere outside in Wyoming.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Maggie Mullen, at mmullen5@uwyo.edu.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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