An Independent Spirit: Remembering Idaho Poet William Studebaker 

"Bill could teach, build a house, wake up and still have time in the morning to write poetry."

click to enlarge studebaker.jpg

Rick Ardinger/Marisa Casella

William "Bill" Studebaker would have enjoyed himself on June 16. The sky was full of clouds, and the late spring air was warm and inviting. The sparkling Boise River begged to be traversed. Just off the river, the Studebaker clan of 23 people gathered with shots of Bill's favorite George Dickle whiskey and gave a toast, raising their glasses to the words, "Once it starts to taste good, that's when it's time to stop drinking." They would later venture across the river to see the new park bench with a plaque honoring Bill. Had he been there, he'd have loved it, but he'd passed away a decade before.

Bill Studebaker was my grandfather. I don't remember much of what he and I did together during the short time that I knew him, but I remember the conversations we had and the lessons he taught me. It wasn't until I was older that I learned about his accomplishments. He was a widely published Idaho author and poet, and his friends, family and countless others remembered him on the 10-year anniversary of his death.

Bill was an expert kayaker, and on July 4, 2008, he attempted to navigate the large Class V rapids of the East Fork of the Salmon River near Yellow Pine. He and his two friends, Rick and Michelle Burkes, had left Twin Falls the previous morning in preparation for the excursion. While the details of Friday's events are murky, at some point Bill went into a rapid and he didn't come out.

"When that happens, sometimes you come out down the river," said Tona Casella, Bill's eldest daughter. "So a search and rescue party started ... And they searched for three days: Friday, Saturday and Sunday."

Friends and family, including Bill's sons Robert and Eric Studebaker, and his younger daughter Tyler Newton, helped search for his body. By 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, July 6, his body had still not been found.

click to enlarge RICK ARDINGER
  • Rick Ardinger

After the search was called off, Tyler hiked down to an embankment. Recalling the moment, she said she saw a vision of her dad sitting on the other side of the river.

"I had just a really warm, comforting feeling go through my body," Tyler said.

She hiked back to the other searchers, and when she reached them a hummingbird flew into their faces, looked each of them in the eye and then flew away. Tyler said she told her mother, Judy Studebaker, the story of the hummingbird later.

"My mom started crying, and she told me my dad loved all the Buddhist stories and the Buddhist religion, and was always fascinated with hummingbirds," Tyler said. "The Buddhist story is [that] when someone dies, their body is preserved in ice-cold water for three days until their spirit is released. And then they choose an animal that matches their personality to take them to the next world. Well, my dad had been preserved in ice-cold water, and then hummingbirds are adventurous ... That whole thing wrapped in one was just crazy."

Hummingbirds have become a symbol of Bill for the family.

In life, Bill was an accomplished author and a poet. He published 13 books in total, four with Limberlost Press: Trailing the Raven, The Rat Lady at the Company Dump, River Religion and Passions We Desire. His books of poetry can still be found at local libraries. He met his publisher and best friend, Rick Ardinger, in 1978. Ardinger said they were like family.

"I always thought we'd be old men together," he said, adding that Bill was extremely dedicated to his art.

"A lot of people will say, 'Oh, I'll write poetry if I have the time,'" Ardinger said. "Bill could teach, build a house, wake up and still have time in the morning to write poetry ... He always had a notebook in his pocket, he was always writing down something."

In addition to writing, Bill started the Outdoor Program at the College of Southern Idaho, served on the board of the Idaho Writers' Connection, was a commissioner for the Idaho Commission on the Arts and was a councilor for the Idaho Humanities Council, which awarded him the Outstanding Achievement in the Humanities award in 2005.

My grandfather knew life was better as a participant than a spectator. He participated in all aspects of his life with an intensity that inspired those who knew him to embrace it with just as much passion. He also had an eye for finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, and often wrote about the simple beauty of Idaho.

A decade after Bill's death, the Studebakers, including myself, were all together again for the first time in many years. Tona was the first to take a drink of the Dickel whiskey, and she winced at the taste. As her eyes welled up, she broke the silence with a simple, but heartfelt thought: "I miss him."

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