On January 7, 2018, one month before his 91st birthday, Bill Atkinson, retired West Coast 7 goal polo player, passed away after a long struggle with cancer. He leaves behind his wife, Connie and his two step daughters, Jenny Vargas and Roxy Keyfauver, his older brother, Glenn (wife, Nancy), and his three children, Joe (wife Cordi), Jennifer Newell (Steve) and Jesse Biglow (Russ) and numerous grandchildren and great grandchildren.
“Uncle” Bill Atkinson was born in 1927 in Okeechobee, Florida. Though his legal name was Gordon Atkinson, his father called him “Billy Buck” after a famous Seminole Indian. The nick name stuck and his name was later changed to William Gordon Atkinson. Bill’s early education was spent between Okeechobee and Jacksonville, Florida where he developed his skills as a natural athlete, whether it was shooting marbles on an elementary school playground, to being awarded a full scholarship for track at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
During his teenage years, Bill’s father, Joe Atkinson, had a famous trick horse named Ot. Bill’s job was to “pass the hat” during Ot and Joe ‘s performances at horse shows. At Hyde Park in New York, Bill spoke of meeting Franklin Roosevelt as he sat in his open air car watching the performance. After the performance, Eleanor Roosevelt, asked Bill how much money Franklin contributed to the hat, then she doubled the amount.
Ot’s fame spread, the decision was made to relocate to the west coast to be closer to Hollywood. In Los Angeles, Ot proved to be a sensation and landed staring roles in the 1946 movies, “Gallant Bess” and “The Horse With A Human Mind.” Being on the MGM set with Ot and his father, young Bill meet a variety of film stars from Mickey Rooney, Elizabeth Taylor,Jimmy Durante, all wanting photos with Ot. Ultimately, The family returned to Florida where Bill graduated from Lee High School in Jacksonville with a track scholarship to the University of Florida. In addition to his success as a runner, Bill was equally talented in basketball. As a “Florida Gator”, besides being on the track team, Bill was a high scorer for the Gator’s basketball team and captain in his senior year. He participated in several sports and elected Vice President of his university class, whilemaintaining an “A” average in his academics.
After graduation from college, Bill returned to California. Though he had been
accepted into veterinary school in Washington, he shifted his career when he met his
first wife, Carol Smith. At that time, he was playing on a semi pro basketball team in Santa Maria, CA and employed as an athletic coach at the local army base. Bill and Carol finally settled in Atherton, California and Bill began working with his father-in-law, L.C. Smith, in the road paving industry.
It was L.C. Smith who introduced Bill to playing polo at the age of 27, a sport. Bill played passionately for 43 years. Playing mostly on the Concar team, Bill’s goal rating quickly grew even though his career limited his playing time to weekends. However, he played with and against the best players of histime such as Roy Barry, Charles Smith, Billy Linfoot, Tommy Wayman, John Oxley , Michael Butler, Ray Harrington, Bobby Beverage, Billy Mayberry ; the list too numerous to mention all polo’s super players of this era. Polo career highlights include winning the US Open in 1969 and again in 1973. He also won the prestigious Santa Barbara’s Pacific Coast Open numerous times.
Through Polo, Bill traveled to many places in the world. He played anywhere there was a polo field and being a scratch golfer, a golf course nearby. From the hunting fields of Mt. Kenya, to Australia, New Zealand , Costa Rica, England and Jaipur, India, his adventure stories about his polo travels made him a wonderful dinner guest at any table.
Bill’s greatest joy in the sport of polo was playing with his brother Glenn and his son, Joe and nephews. Jeff, Larry and Greg. These Atkinson men and boys made Menlo Circus Club, Santa Barbara Polo Club and Eldorado Polo Club great polo destinations. Following his divorce from Carol, Bill decided to play polo full time. Taking himself and his horses to Santa Barbara Polo Club, he did much to improve the stabling conditions by building the many tack rooms upon the hill.
People who love polo, especially those living on the West Coast, have more than one “Uncle” Bill Atkinson story to tell. He did much to give opportunities to many individuals wanting to be a part of the wonderful world of polo. His long list of those he helped along the way with his infectious smile and words of encouragement; giving players horses when they needed them, tips on their game, sharing his home, made him a super hero. He looks like Captain America , observed Eileen Duffy after looking at the photo walls at the Santa Barbara Polo Club,
In 1996, he met Connie Keyfauver through an introduction by her daughters, Jenny and Roxy. They were married in 2002. “These will be the best years of your life” he told her as she was adjusting to her empty nest situation. Bill was right. Over the past 20 years together their adventures included much traveling throughout the world, being with family and watching them grow, raising and training young horses for polo and providing a program for junior polo players living in Coachella Valley at Empire Polo Club. What a man! What a life! What a loss!
A celebration of Life for Bill Atkinson is planned for January 26, to be held at Empire Polo Club’ Medjool Lake on Field one between 2:30 to 5:00. A special thank you to Al Haagen for providing for this service. Please bring your stories to share with everyone. Bill would love that.