Friends recall a civic-minded prankster

sgilman@newsobserver.comFebruary 3, 2014 

— Strong, piercing eyes look out from the snapshot of William Powell Bagley, and a hint of a smile plays on his confident face.

At the time he posed for that yearbook photo in 1953, the high school senior was well liked. By the time of his death on Jan. 15, the former Clayton mayor was beloved.

Below that yearbook photo, a paragraph listed his extracurricular activities: four sports, science club, athletic council, safety patrol and drama. He stayed busy and kept his friends laughing.

“There will never be another one like him,” said his friend, Paul Forbes.

Bagley’s fellow seniors at Clayton High School voted him “wittiest, the most athletic and the most popular,” said lifelong friend Bucky Coats.

On the next page of the 1953 yearbook are the bright smile and laughing eyes of Emily Barden. She and Bagly took lead roles in a senior play and at one point had to kiss. It became a real-life romance that led to their marriage.

They had known each other since childhood. Lifelong friend Helen Ellerbe recalled that in seventh grade, Emily would invite girls over to her house to make fudge. William would hear of it, gather a posse of boys and swoop in to devour the fudge.

“He was always just funny and full of energy, full of life,” Ellerbe said.

After high school, the sports star joined the Army for two years. He went to Germany but “toted a basketball instead of a gun,” said his brother, John. “I think he enjoyed himself,” he said.

Bagley used the G.I. Bill to attend East Carolina University, where he graduated with a science degree in 1960. Barden and Ellerbe also attended ECU, and Bagley would drive the three of them to Greenville and back each day. On evenings and weekends, he would take Barden’s friends out to eat.

One of their favorite stops was the Silo, opened in 1949 by Wilbur Hardee, who later founded the Hardee’s restaurant chain.

“They had fried chicken, and they would pour honey over it,” Ellerbe recalled.

After Barden and Bagley married, they moved into a house on Johnson Drive. Ellerbe married Jim Ellerbe, and they moved into a house on nearby Canady St. The families raised their children together.

At home in Clayton

Right after college, Bagley took a job as a chemist with Union Carbide. When the plant moved to West Virginia, Bagley decided to leave the company.

He wanted to stay in Clayton.

“He made a huge, huge, huge sacrifice for his family,” said his son, Dr. Mike Bagley, a Clayton veterinarian. “He wanted (his children) to have the same experience he did.”

Bagley flung himself into another career, opening White’s Hardware and Autoparts with a friend, Ralph Crabtree. He was active in civic affairs, joining the Civitan Club and serving on various committees. From 1965 to 1967, Bagley was a town commissioner. He was mayor from 1967 to 1971 and oversaw the town’s centennial celebration.

No one opposed Bagley when he ran for re-election in 1969.

“Knowing him now, I just can’t imagine him being mayor,” said another lifelong friend, Barbara Stevens. “I mean, his comical ways. I’m sure he settled in and got down to business when he was mayor, but he’s just funny.”

Bagley did get down to business, leading Clayton when Town Hall had little support staff. Current mayor Jody McLeod said it must have been a tough job.

“They didn’t have staff like we have staff, and look at how well they led and how they managed back in the day,” McLeod said.

Mike Bagley said his dad was a resilient man who, although he was aware of his limitations, never let them overwhelm him.

“My dad was an incredibly optimistic individual,” Mike said. “That was really, really important when he was mayor of Clayton. It really helped to be able to roll with the punches and be able to move on and fight another day.”

Clayton’s centennial celebration is still one of the most remembered things about Bagley’s time as mayor. For a fundraiser, the council voted that any men caught downtown without facial hair would be locked up and have to a pay a fine to be released.

“Red,” as Bagley’s’s friends called him for his bright red hair, grew a red beard for the occasion.

“He could hardly wait to shave it off,” Ellerbe said.

Always a kidder

His whole life, Bagley was ever the prankster.

“He wrote my name in Roundup in my yard, and it stayed there for 40 years,” Forbes said.

But the pranks went both ways.

Once, about 15 or 20 years ago, the Really Old Men Eating Out, or ROMEOs, a group that included friends of Bagley’s, chipped in for a newspaper ad that stated Bagley would be collecting Christmas trees after Christmas.

Soon after, Bagley started getting calls from people to come get their trees. He told one woman it was just a joke, and she responded, “Joke or no, you come and get this Christmas tree.”

He did.

“That’s what we’re going to miss about William,” Forbes said. “We don’t have anyone to pick on now.”

Bagley’s legacy is more than humor, said his son, who opened Clayton Animal Hospital in 1986.

“My hospital would not exist if not for my dad,” Mike said.

When Mike graduated from veterinary school, he went to work at an animal hospital in another town. Bagley recognized that Mike would never provide for a family working that job, and he thought Clayton could support a second veterinary clinic. He called Mike and told him to come back and buy some land.

Mike bought the land, and his father asked him for the blueprints for the hospital. Mike said his dad acquired some bricks from a demolished house and started construction right after that.

“A few weeks after I gave him the plans, he gave me a call, and he said, ‘Son, we’ve got your foundation laid, and we need you to come down and sign paperwork with the banker.’”

Humorous, selfless and tenacious, Bagley didn’t even reveal to his friends that he was diagnosed with leukemia last year.

“We knew he was sick, but we didn’t know how sick he was,” said his friend, Odell Wood.

His family knew. This past Christmas, doctors gave him one year to live, but about two weeks later, he was gone. No more of his jokes, pranks and helpfulness. Friends and family, and even some who never knew him, will never forget him.

“I miss him every day,” Stevens said. “It’s not the same without William.”

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