After a military honor guard presented the folded flags to the family of the William S. DeMayo, actor Robert Gossett steps forward. Wearing a celebrative white instead of more funereal shades, Gossett spun, waving a hand over the sprawling, rolling California countryside – also known as Return to Freedom American Wild Horse Sanctuary.
“All this,” he proclaimed, “is Bill.”
A few minutes later, between testimonials from daughters Neda and Diana, the proceedings were interrupted by two folks on the fringes of the crowd – a pair of horses who had broken into boisterous whinnying.
“That’s Bill!” someone shouted amid the laughter.
Two decades ago, when Bill De Mayo was a mere lad of 73, who would have thought his life would take the East Coaster out here, on a horse sanctuary he would help his daughter found on the California coast? After earning four bronze service stars and two oak leaf clusters as a bombardier in World War II, Bill had returned to his native Northeast and build a career in accounting, rising to partner in the firm of Ernst and Ernst (now known as Ernst and Young). He was not particularly known as a horse person, but his daughter Neda definitely was. As a girl, she’d seen a documentary about the abuse of wild horses; unlike many of us, she had retained the passion to do something about it into adulthood.
Determined to found a sanctuary for wild horses, she was evaluating a variety of West Coast sites when her father began contemplating retiring to California. Then they discovered the 300-acre spread in rural Santa Barbara County, in a region with the promising name of Point Conception. The family decided to sell their securities to buy the land. Under Neda’s leadership, Return to Freedom flourished, recruiting such supporters as Robert Redford and Carole King. Even one of their horses is a star – Spirit (seen above) was the model for the Dreamworks animated film Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.
I never knew Bill – he passed away May 4th – but I had heard enough stories over the last year to know I’d have liked him. Karena Ryals, the friend who connected me to the sanctuary, was one of his caregivers; she was with him when he passed. She talks fondly of his love of singing, something they often did together; on the day he died, she joined him when he cheerfully broke into Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
When you walk through a storm
Hold your head up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark
At the end of the storm
There’s a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of the lark
The song was fitting for reasons beyond the timing. Since arriving here at the ranch four days ago, everyone I’ve talked to about Bill DeMayo – from family and friends to the staff – talked about his relentless optimism.
You can add to that his relentless generosity, which, one friend of his told me, was the source from which everything else here sprang. Without even meeting the man, I have benefitted from that virtue. Return to Freedom has put me to as good a use as any agency on this two-month road trip. I’ve cleaned gutters on the office and the barns, thrown clumps of hay at (and occasionally onto) horses and burros from a moving cart, and mucked corrals and stalls, sometimes near the horses who had produced the manure I was gathering. (Along the way, I discovered that while academics occasionally refer to clerical work as “shoveling s–t,” the actual activity is, surprisingly, preferable to paperwork.) Finally, I owe Bill for the nights, walking to and from my cozy cabin under a starry sky devoid of light pollution, the only noises those from horses, coyotes, birds, and other creatures of the night.
After two months on the road, this place has restored my spirits even as it’s worked my body. There’s a lovely calm amid the hustle and bustle, a cordiality amid the scores of tasks that keep the horses fed and the ranch running. Back in Tuscaloosa some unknown thousands of miles ago, a dear friend, Margaret Cooper, told me how her own volunteer work comes out of gratitude for how good people have been to her; Return to Freedom joins the long list of places where I’ve seen that dynamic in action.
As Neda said at the service, “My dad, he was always grateful, he never expected much, and he was so glad for the gifts he had received.” Last year, in a Father’s Day blog, Neda compared her dad to “the rugged stallions who guide their herds to food, shelter and safety” – as well as someone who helped her every step of the way toward her dream.
Then there are the words of the man himself, in the message he wrote for his own memorial program. “My life,” he stated, “is fuller and richer by virtue of what I have shared.”
When the sharing on the patio is over, and Peter Crowheart and his fellow musicians have performed the Native American song “Soldier Boy,” Neda saddles up and leads a riderless white horse most of the way up a ridge. Once we all catch up, there’s a Chumash chanting ceremony in which each of us is blessed with the smoke of burning sage and the pressing of an eagle feather to our foreheads; the horses are included in this rite. Many of Bill’s ashes are spread along the spine of the riderless horse, the rest remaining in a bag Neda holds once she mounts her own horse. Then she leads the Arabian up the ridge, her father’s ashes trailing them in a cloud that settles into the sanctuary he helped create.
We watch as she, her sister Diana, and, of course, Bill ride up and down the ridge, eventually working their way along a crease.We’re not the only ones watching: Opposite us, a herd of wild horses line up at the fence line, then take off almost parallel to the riders – kicking up their own cloud in seeming tribute. We whoop then, and again later, as the two sisters come trotting back up the ridge, grinning amid grief, celebrating the man who made this moment possible … for all of us.