News

Legendary West High band director Bissell dies at age 70.

“Coach” Bill Bissell, former high school music director in Bremerton, famous — nearly infamous — band leader at the UW, and inventor of “The Wave,” died Wednesday in his sleep at his Bothell home.

He was 70.

Dick Norton of Bremerton remembers Bissell well. Norton taught band at the then-rival East High School while Bissell was at West High.

“We were very good friends,” he said. “We went crabbing together all the time.”

He said, “Bill was an outstanding musician and teacher. He brought the student musical groups to very high levels while in Bremerton.”

Bissell was a happy throwback, according to friends and associates.

“He was not a complex guy,” said Matso Limtiaco, former band member and then assistant band director at the UW under Bissell. “He was a big fan of the (old fashioned) variety show... the Vaudeville approach.”

Bissell spent 14 years in Bremerton in the West High music department — 1956 to 1970. He was then hired by the UW as an assistant professor of music. Later, he became the Athletic Department’s band director.

In 24 years at the UW, until his retirement in 1994, Bissell developed a national reputation — not just as another band leader supporting the team, but also as a showman with a band that entertained the crowds.

He and pep leader Robb Weller are credited with inventing The Wave in 1981 — a fan-participation gimmick in which fans stand up and raise their arms in an undulating motion around the stadium. It’s now practiced at events all over the world.

To honor Bissell on the 20th anniversary of The Wave, he and Weller were invited to Husky Stadium at the school’s homecoming this year. The two led fans in a Wave that went around the stadium twice.

“His philosophy for the marching band is that it should be as entertaining as possible,” recalls Limtiaco, an Everett resident who now works as a technical writer. “I’ve worked with a lot of band leaders, and his instincts were to support the football team,” he said, explaining that Bissell, who earned the nickname “Coach” precisely because he was such an ardent supporter of the team, would have the band play unusual musical numbers and do outrageous stunts to get the crowds excited.

“Once, there was a game played on Halloween,” said Limtiaco. “At one point, the band stripped to display Halloween costumes underneath.”

On another occasion, Bissell and the band had raised enough cash for new uniforms. They announced this to the crowds, then, at the end of halftime, the band played striptease music, and simply stripped down to their skivvies, said son, Bruce Bissell.

“It was the way my dad’s goofy mind worked,” said Bruce. “The band members all wore crazy undergarments.”

Bissell made the song “Tequila” synonymous with the football program and “Hey Baby” synonymous with the woman’s basketball team, said his son.

Bissell emphasized education.

“He was always there to remind people that band members were students first and band members second,” said Limtiaco. “If events clashed with band members’ studies, he wouldn’t do those events. If the school wanted the band to perform during exam weeks — no way.”

During Bissell’s tenure at the UW, the band was transferred from the Music Department to the Athletic Department — which meant a big jump in budget. All extra money donated was converted into scholarships for band members.

“He gave out 15 scholarships one year,” said Limtiaco.

Bissell was born in Dunsmuir, Calif. and was raised in Ashland, Ore. He received his bachelor’s degree in music from Willamette University. He arrived in Bremerton in 1956 after earning a master’s in music from the University of Illinois. During his nearly decade and a half at West High, he led the marching band, concert band and jazz band. After retiring from the UW in 1994, he often returned to BHS for games and ceremonies. In recent years he had been having heart problems, said Limtiaco.

Limtiaco recalled one more quirk of Bissell’s.

“He was a stickler for doing things on time. If a bus (for an away game) was going to leave at a certain time, you had better be there, or you’d get left behind. He even left his wife behind once.

“He used to say, ‘To be early is to be on time. To be on time is to be late, and to be late is to be left.’”

We encourage an open exchange of ideas on this story's topic, but we ask you to follow our guidelines for respecting community standards. Personal attacks, inappropriate language, and off-topic comments may be removed, and comment privileges revoked, per our Terms of Use. Please see our FAQ if you have questions or concerns about using Facebook to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus

Read the Dec 12
Green Edition

Browse the print edition page by page, including stories and ads.

Browse the archives.

Friends to Follow

View All Updates