Person of the year: Bill Moeller


On a red recliner in a living room on Fords Prairie Avenue in Centralia, Bill Moeller enjoys watching TV as Sam, the 3-year-old black cat, keeps him company.

The friendship makes sense: Both have at least nine lives.

At 95-years-old, Moeller’s resume includes paratrooper, pilot, Centralia mayor, radio host, Mark Twain impersonator, bookstore owner, city councilor, actor and officiant for hundreds of weddings.

But, when asked about his legacy on Oct. 25, 2023, Moeller didn’t choose from the aforementioned accolades.

Without skipping a beat, he replied: “It’s the columnist. It has to be that. I’ve certainly made more friends that way. And a few enemies besides, but mostly friends.”

On March 19, 2008, The Daily Chronicle published the first installment of Moeller’s weekly column, “I Was Just Thinking…”

In 2011, facing revenue decline, the newspaper became a thrice-weekly publication in print, and only “Daily” online. With many loyal print subscribers, the switch was at the bottom of a long list of budget cuts.

According to Eric Schwartz, who’s now editor-in-chief, management regretfully told Moeller in 2010 his weekly column was too costly — they could only pay him twice a month.

But city councilors and radio hosts don’t need incentives to share their opinions. Moeller kept writing every week, paycheck or not.

“I was told that mainly, I would write about political things,” Moeller recalled of his surprise job offering in 2008. “Because I had been mayor not too long before that.”

Shortly after turning 95, Moeller penned his final column last summer. Over 15 years, even accounting for archival reruns, that’s more than 700 columns. Too many for just politics; yet, not enough for all of Moeller’s life story.

Instead, through hundreds of thousands of words, the Greater Lewis County Area would come to know Moeller’s heart.

The Paratrooper

Bill Moeller was born in Tacoma on May 5, 1928. He weighed 6 pounds and 14 ounces and was baptized at 22 days old, according to a 2021 column. He had one younger brother, and his parents were staunchly Lutheran.

In childhood, he lived through the Great Depression and World War II. Moeller spent summers in high school working in shipyards and dreaming of attending the University of Washington to study acting.

After graduation, motivated by the G.I. Bill and the promise of an education, Moeller joined the U.S. Army in 1946. At the end of his initial three-year enlistment, Moeller was working for an armed forces radio station in Japan.

“I thought, ‘Well, it’s not so bad, this life. Because you hardly do anything,’” Moeller recalled with a chuckle. “So I extended for another year, and, at the end of that year, the next war started.”

A paratrooper, Moeller joined combat in the Korean War shortly after it began.

In a 2023 column, he recalled the time as “abominably cold days and nights we suffered through during the first winter of the Korean War.”

He recalls pulling padded gloves off enemy corpses to keep himself warm.

In his last days in Korea, with frostbitten feet, Moeller couldn’t keep up with his retreating squadron. By the time he arrived at the meet-up location, everyone was gone.

“There I was, by myself. With a Chinese cell just about ready to come over the hill,” Moeller recalled. “They did not come that night, and I don’t know why. They were ready, because we could see their lights and everything else. But they did not attack us.”

Later on, he’d learn there were 2,000

Chinese soldiers just across the road that night.

“I just kept walking, and I finally made it,” Moeller said. “The first thing I saw there was a M.A.S.H. building. … They put me in a cot. The doctor says, ‘That’s frostbite.’ And, the next thing I remember, I was waking up in Japan.”

He spent several months recovering before becoming a staff sergeant in Okinawa who trained draftees.

“I’m proud of my eventual five years of service and, although I never made it to drama school, Mark Twain and I managed to find many good years ‘on the boards,’” Moeller wrote in 2021.

The Entertainer

When Moeller returned to the states, he enrolled in a two-year program to become a radio technician in Tacoma.

Spending his evenings working on planes, Moeller completed the course in half the time. He married Frances, the first girl he dated after the service.

“You’ll love this. I was having a beer with a friend of mine, and I said, ‘We’ve got to go where there’s some action.’ And he said, ‘We’ll go see —’ and he mentioned a boy’s name (Frances),” Moeller recalled. “I said, ‘Well, I’m looking for girls!’”

The couple had daughter Lisa and son Matthew. After earning and then being fired from a radio job, Moeller and a friend started their own station. It got popular enough that he sold his share of the business, Moeller recalled, before the family moved to Wenatchee, where Frances grew up.

In the 1960s, he was hired at KELA in Centralia as an evening DJ. He worked in the role for about 11 years before a promotion. Eventually, Moeller started the local morning talk show “Let’s Talk About It.”

“It was totally different than what it is today,” Moeller recalled, adding with a laugh, “It was, ‘What are all the nice things? … Instead of, ‘How rotten.’”

With his evenings free once again, Moeller took up acting with the Evergreen Playhouse, and directed “half a dozen” performances, he said. There, Moeller suggested a reader’s theater, where they dress up as authors and read their favorite books.

A fellow performer suggested Moeller dress up as Mark Twain, “‘Since you look a little bit like him,’” he recalled. “And people loved that. So somebody asked me to do it at a luncheon. I did that, and somebody asked me to do it again. And the library wanted to do something on his birthday.”

The hardest part, Moeller recalled, was finding the proper white suit. Eventually, he’d tour the Northwest states as Twain.

“That ended with the final performance 14 years ago, which resulted in — I’ve been told — over $7,000 toward the building of the proposed (and now beautifully completed) Vernetta Smith Timberland Chehalis Library,” he wrote in a 2023 column.

The Mayor

In 1980, Moeller was sworn in as mayor of the Centralia City Commission after winning an election by just four votes.

At the time, each one of three commissioners reigned over a certain section of city government.

“For instance, in addition to the usual formal duties, the mayor was also commissioner of public safety,” Moeller wrote in a 2017 column. “The commissioner of public works was in charge of utilities, streets, garbage, parks, etc., and the commissioner of finance was in control of city hall and anything that had to do with budget matters.”

He served 16 years on the commission and subsequent city council, making Moeller the last elected mayor Centralia ever had.

For each of those years, Moeller served on the board of Twin Transit.

Around that time, Moeller recalled, mayor of Chehalis, Vivian Roewe, spearheaded a ballot measure for a Twin Cities sales tax-funded transit authority.

“And thus, Twin Transit was formed,” Moeller wrote in a 2011 column, later adding, “It was a closely knit operation back in those early days. … A feeling of family began to develop.”

He led the city through the May 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, when ash covered Centralia and its water sources.

“If that second eruption of Mount St. Helens proved anything, it pointed out that Centralia’s water system was only barely meeting our needs and that future growth would put a larger strain on it,” Moeller wrote in a 40-year anniversary column on the eruption.

With around an inch of “crushed and shredded rock covering every square inch of both Centralia and Chehalis,” Moeller wrote, the city qualified for water tank grants and its officials were able to “guarantee a sufficient source of water for well into the future (no pun intended).”

As mayor, Moeller signed a city ordinance creating the Seminary Hill Natural Area.

“That was in his official capacity, but he’s also always been a strong supporter of Centralia’s forested jewel as a private citizen. In his late 80s and into his 90s, he was still coming out to our annual work parties, stationing himself among the blackberries to cut back the thorns and make our community a better place,” said Brian Mittge, a fellow Chronicle columnist who serves as president of Friends of the Seminary Hill Natural Area. “He’s been a faithful friend to his adopted hometown of Centralia. We are the better for it.”

‘An Impractical Dreamer’

Through nearly 16 years of Bill Moeller’s weekly columns, he wrote of three marriages ending in divorce; the “never-to-be-forgotten sound of Korean and Chinese bullets passing far too closely to my head for comfort”; critical perspectives on local politics; and being disappointed by new technology. Moeller often referred to himself as “curmudgeonly.”

But, Moeller also wrote of the loving moments before and during those marriages, including first dates, vacations, sharing meals and homes. He wrote about gardening often, and the subtle joys of life in Centralia, Washington, including chirping frogs, warm summer days and homegrown strawberries.

“I’m pretty open,” Moeller said. “I don’t hide anything. Even when I went through three wives.”

He’s told stories from his time owning Huckleberry Books, visiting the Southwest Washington Fair with his son, Matthew, and walking at Seminary Hill.

In one 2017 column, Moeller calls himself “an impractical dreamer.” By his record and demeanor, this title is far more fitting than “curmudgeonly.”

Instead of being disillusioned by marriage, Moeller officiated 917 weddings. One of his favorites, he recalled in October, took place on a racetrack where the betrothed first met.

Rather than being put off by his  harrowing wartime experience, Moeller could be found jumping from planes until age 80.

At age 70, he earned his pilot’s license, fulfilling a lifelong dream.

“I had done what I loved to do all my life and from childhood,” Moeller said with great satisfaction and a huge smile.

Throughout his many lives, Moeller was motivated by meeting and befriending new people. In his Oct. 25 interview, he said, “Today at Safeway, I met two people who miss the column. And they recognized me! Even with all the hair.”

In a file cabinet, Moeller has saved each of his columns and a folder full of notes from readers. Looking through these, “My spirits started to soar,” he wrote in 2011.

“Bill has a thousand stories that he has shared over the decades as a Chronicle columnist,” Mittge said. “In person, he is just as delightful — quick with a smile and a carefully chosen wise word when needed. He’s distinctive yet relatable; unique but still one of us; creative and collaborative. He’s a jester and a gentleman.”