EVERETT — As Mike Deller thumbed through his father’s wallet Monday, he was reminded about what was most important to him.
There was a black-and-white photo of a young woman from the 1940s, when his dad was still courting his mom. There was another of her later in life in Hawaii and a portrait of the couple’s four grown children.
There were a few wistful lines from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “My Lost Youth,” and a business card that simply said “Bill Deller” on the front. He would hand the card out to friends, strangers or anyone else who struck up a conversation, even in the hospital days before his death.
On the back were the words of John Wesley, a father of Methodism.
Do all the good you can
By all the means you can
In all the ways you can
In all the places you can
To all the people you can
As long as ever you can
Bill Deller lived by those words for as long as he could as an Everett High School teacher; an instructor, coach, counselor and later dean of students at Everett Community College; and as a volunteer advocating for foster children, addicts and local parks, among many other causes.
Deller died Sunday at a rehabilitation center, a week after intestinal surgery. The World War II veteran was 98 and smiling when he took his last breath.
Family, friends and former co-workers and students have described the great lengths Deller went to help others.
“Bill loved this place, and he took advantage of every opportunity here — coaching, teaching, running student activities, establishing the EvCC Foundation — quite a legacy,” said John Olson, EvCC’s vice president of college advancement. “His success was rooted in how he treated people, and in his relentless optimism even during difficult times.”
As soldiers returned from Vietnam, some struggling or unable to walk, Deller navigated the campus in a wheelchair to find trouble spots and enlisted maintenance staff and carpentry classes to make the fixes. In the 1960s, when there was no Black faculty, he became the first advisor to the Black Student Union. He eased friction among immigrant students from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
His children remember that out of his own pocket, which “wasn’t that deep,” he would buy and bring Christmas trees to faculty who couldn’t afford them.
Without fanfare, he talked a troubled, armed and confrontational veteran who came to his office into putting away his guns and getting help.
As American flags burned and hostages were taken in Tehran in the fall of 1979, Deller made sure a dozen Iranian students were safe and cared for at Everett Community College, even as their money from home dried up. He interceded with immigration officials on visa issues, helped them get work permits and earn tuition, and brought them food donated by fellow students and faculty.
Forty years later, many of those students are now U.S. citizens and remain grateful. Some became engineers and business owners. Like Deller, one became a counselor.
Former co-worker Marjorie Day once wrote about Deller’s 12-hour days counseling students, handling crises and keeping up with former students. In an excerpt quoted in the EvCC student newspaper The Clipper, she said: “He cheers up students when they are down-in-the-mouth. He figuratively boots them in the fanny when they are shirking. He assures that the students point of view is recognized by the college.”
Mike Deller became one of the students Bill Deller counseled, and sometimes chided when he spotted his son playing cards with classmates in the cafeteria when he could have been studying.
Yet his dad was there for him, in the stands when he was a catcher for the EvCC baseball team or in his office when he needed to talk.
“He always had time for me,” he said.
Bill Deller chafed at recognition but was touched when the college named an outdoor plaza on the campus after him.
He once explained to retired Daily Herald columnist Kristi O’Harran what made him tick: “I came to realize that life lived to help others is the only one that matters, and that it is my duty, in return for the life God has given me, to help others. This is the highest and best use of humans.”
Deller served in many roles in a life that began in 1922 in a tiny South Dakota town. His family moved to Oregon, crossing the Rockies in a Model A after the Dust Bowl. He was on the University of Oregon track team and would ride his bicycle to campus for classes. He enlisted in the Navy during World War II. He flew the Navy version of the B-24 over Japanese-held islands of Okinawa, Iwo Jima and Truk for pre-invasion photographs.
“He never complained, he never bragged — he just always gave back,” his children wrote in an obituary. “Although he was a brave Navy pilot during World War II, the Korean War and as a reservist for many years, he didn’t talk much about his missions. He just faithfully performed his duties for his country.”
By his own estimate, Bill Deller worked 35 to 40 jobs, many blue-collar and demanding, along the way. They included a stint in shipyards, with fish traps in Alaska, time at a dairy, SCUBA diving for logs and working on the green chain at an Everett mill. He tried his hand at selling insurance and Fuller brushes when his family was growing and needed extra income.
While stationed in Guam during World War II, Deller fell in love with the woman in the 1940s photograph, even though they had never met.
The picture was given to him by a friend on the Navy flight team who corresponded with several women.
“I’m out on an island in the middle of nowhere and that’s the picture I get,” Deller recalled more than 75 years later. “Lois from Swampscott, Massachusetts.”
As he would often do in his nearly century of life, Deller used personality and perseverance to win over Lois Mansfield. They wrote back and forth during the war, and he managed to pay her a visit after he returned. He proposed to her by telegram when he was living in Oregon and she in Massachusetts. Her engagement ring arrived by mail.
For a short time after the war, he was an Alaska Airlines navigator out of Paine Field. He retired from the Navy Reserves in 1969. He also was an extra in the 1948 western movie “Rachel and the Stranger,” starring Loretta Young, William Holden and Robert Mitchum.
Deller started at the college in 1955 as a coach and physical education instructor. He also taught aviation maintenance and coached several sports. In 1968, he became the dean of students.
Even after he retired, he remained an important figure at the college. He was EvCC’s first foundation director, working his way up and down Hewitt and Colby avenues as well as Broadway, looking for money to help students.
Mike Deller remembers those early days of fundraising: “He was walking down the street with a tin can, basically.”
In 2018-19, the foundation awarded 256 student scholarships, for a total of $415,925. It also contributed $443,369 in support of 45 college programs.
The current assets for the EvCC Foundation are $5.6 million.
Until his death, Bill Deller still managed to pitch in $2,000 a year.
He is survived by sons John (and Monaree) Deller and Mike (and Cathy) Deller, and daughter Patti (and Tom) Safley. He was a grandfather of nine and great-grandfather of 10.
His wife, Lois, died in 2009. Bill Deller patiently and lovingly cared for her for the last five years of her life after she was diagnosed with dementia, his family said. Son Steve Deller, brother Robert Deller and sister Joyce Ruscetta also preceded him in death.
The family said a celebration of life for friends will take place when it is safe to do so.
Those wishing to make donations in his memory may give to the Everett Community College Foundation — Bill Deller Family Scholarship Fund.
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; firstname.lastname@example.org