Bill Koeneker, a reporter for the Malibu Surfside News for nearly 30 years who covered this community during the historic fight for cityhood in the ‘80s and early ‘90s as well as the shaping of a nascent city, died Saturday morning, Dec. 26, after a long illness. He was 71.
“He was a California surfer without the surfboard,” said his brother Steven, referring to Bill’s love of the ocean. “Bill enjoyed life and living life to the fullest that he could.”
Their father William said of Bill, “He was a gentle soul, seldom given to anger and always great with children who adored him and sought him out. Yes, Bill was a little different than most, and that is what made him very special to so many—especially me, his dad.”
Former Malibu Mayor Tom Hasse called Bill “THE chronicler of the city of Malibu in its earliest years—the good, the bad, and the ugly.” Hasse said Bill and he shared a good relationship that included serious business, but also some lightheartedness and teasing.
“Journalists and politicians are forever in tension because of the nature of their jobs,” Hasse wrote in an email. “But that doesn’t mean they cannot respect each other and even, with an acknowledgement of that tension, find common ground.”
He continued, “Whenever anyone wants to understand the earliest years of the city, they will search out and read Bill’s articles. That history is Bill’s greatest gift to Malibu and to everyone who loves America’s most beautiful coastal city.”
Bill was technically my rival when I wrote for The Malibu Times, but was actually a good friend whom I miss tremendously. He had a distinctive look, with thick bushy hair and usually a mustache and beard to match. For many years, he wore a bathing suit underneath his clothes just in case an ocean visit might come up. He didn’t have any phone at all until very late in life. Bill was a unique character who wore glasses so thick, they had to be specially made. His poor vision meant he wasn’t able to drive by his 40s, but this didn’t curb Bill’s love for adventure.
On our adventures, I would drive and he served as the tour guide, pointing out the secret spots throughout Southern California. We enjoyed hiking and biking (he usually was faster than me despite being 30 years older), visiting the horse track and hanging out at the many Malibu homes where he house-sat. Our pre-council meeting meals at Subway were legendary and made city officials and activists who ran into us there suspicious. We laughed.
While reaching out to Bill’s friends and family, I learned others had similar memories.
“He was a tour guide par excellence,” said longtime friend Pat Moore, whose husband Denis was a high school friend and bandmate of Bill. They visited Bill in his adopted home state several times, traveling up and down California and into Mexico, with Bill knowing all the best spots. His knowledge of California, especially Malibu, was at a scholar’s level—so good, you’d never know he wasn’t a native.
Bill was born March 28, 1949, the first child of Helen and William Koeneker in Berkeley, Mo., a small city about 15 miles outside St. Louis. Pat said the small-town life of Malibu might have been appealing to him because it reminded Bill of his childhood.
“Visually handicapped from birth, Bill did not let it keep him from being an avid reader and straight-A student, graduating from high school with honors,” his father wrote in an email. “He developed a love of music at a very early age, and in his late teens organized a band (The Pound Sterlings) with Bill at the keyboard. The band had gigs all around the St. Louis area.
Bill met bandmate Denis in their sophomore year at St. Thomas Aquinas High School. They were introduced to each other by Gerry Vacarro who, along with Rick Temmen, also joined their first band, The Imperials. Denis said Bill was a great student, but also knew how to have fun. When they worked together at McDonald’s, Bill played pranks on customers. They saw many great concerts together, including The Who as a warmup act and Bill’s favorite band, the Beatles, at Busch Stadium for $5.50 per ticket.
“We were the clean-cut Roman Catholic boys who maintained a certain amount of Catholic guilt, honored our parents and hoped God didn’t see us when we did any of our shenanigans,” Denis said.
His father said Bill was an avid water skier, despite not being able to see the end of the skis.
“We spent many hours enjoying the river and waterways together,” William wrote. “His dream was to live in California near the water, so shortly after his mother’s death, he took off to find that dream with an optimism that he never seemed to lack.”
Bill’s first Southern California home was in the Sea Castle building (since rebuilt) overlooking the Santa Monica ocean. He and a girlfriend sold touristy items at a small store on the Santa Monica Pier and soda and sandwiches on the beach. Bill soon took a job as an operator at GTE (now Verizon). That is where he met Annette Watterson, who would later become the love of his life and took care of him up to the end.
“Bill was very popular there; all the women loved him and he gave great massages,” said Annette, who noted as many others did that Bill was a magnet for women. While still at the phone company, Bill moved to Topanga and later his home of 30-plus years in a trailer at the top of Trancas Canyon. He lived there until it burned down in the Woolsey Fire of 2018. Bill’s first job in Malibu was at the former Point Dume Library, and by the mid-’80s he was on the government beat for the Surfside News.
Annette and Bill only had an acquaintance relationship when they worked together, but they reconnected in 2009 and a relationship developed.
“We had so much fun together and enjoyed laughing,” Annette said. She said they remain together still, and reflected on her final conversation with him in this world, with a weakened Bill talking to her on a speaker phone in the nursing home.
“I knew he wasn’t going to get better, but I said, ‘try and get better, Bill,’” she said. “And I heard him say ‘OK’ really low. And then I said, ‘you’re not alone. I think about you all the time.’” And then I heard something. And the nurse said, ‘did you hear that?’ I said, ‘kind of.’ She said, ‘he said I love you too.’” You can’t get better final words than that.
In addition to Annette, Bill is survived by his father William and stepmother Susan, brothers Gary, Mark, Steven, and Ben; stepbrother Matthew; and so many friends. His body is being cremated and a memorial service will take place when it is possible.
Jonathan Friedman is a former Malibu Times reporter and assistant editor and longtime friend of Bill Koeneker.