William Bechill

[ Age 78 ] First U.S. commissioner on aging also ran state Commission on Aging, advocated to preserve Social Security.

March 26, 2007|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,Sun reporter

William D. Bechill, the nation's first commissioner on aging and a former chairman of Maryland's Commission on Aging, died Friday at Bethesda's Suburban Hospital of complications after a fall on the ice in February. He was 78.

Mr. Bechill, who was born in Grosse Point, Mich., earned an undergraduate degree from Wisconsin's Beloit College in 1949 and followed it up with a master's in social work in 1951 from the University of Michigan.

After college, Mr. Bechill became a county social welfare director in northern Michigan. In 1960, he moved to become executive secretary of California's Citizens Advisory Committee and then chief of medical care for the state's Department of Social Welfare.

His nontraditional upbringing primed him for social work, said his son John Bechill of Severna Park. With a mentally ill mother and an absent father, Mr. Bechill was raised by an extended family, his son said, one that taught him "to always believe in helping others and in humanitarian causes."

His work caught the attention of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who appointed Mr. Bechill in 1965 to the newly created position of commissioner on aging. Mr. Bechill moved his family to Kensington for the job, where he worked to create a network of senior centers across the country.

"It was an opportunity to do the things he believed in," his son said. "He was very concerned about the elderly, who had high rates of poverty. He wanted to do what he could to make sure the elderly had services and a good sense of security."

He became a professor with the University of Maryland's School of Social Work in Baltimore, teaching until 1991.

In retirement, Mr. Bechill continued working for senior citizens, becoming an officer for Save Our Security, an organization dedicated to preserving Social Security.

In 1996, during the Gov. Parris N. Glendening administration, he became chairman of Maryland's Commission on Aging.

Sue Ward, Mr. Glendening's secretary of aging, said it was a coup to get someone of Mr. Bechill's reputation on the staff.

"He took that commission and made a real working advocacy group out of it," she said, explaining how Mr. Bechill fought to get reliable transportation for seniors living in rural areas who couldn't drive and how he worked to unite the state's disparate local aging councils, pushing them to lobby for their needs in Annapolis.

Mr. Bechill's work on behalf of older Americans included developing policies for issues such as income maintenance, long-term care and foster grandparents.

"He was a really brilliant man," his son said. "He really had a good grasp of social policy issues, coalition building and how to move things."

Mr. Bechill tried to instill in his three sons his core liberal values. John Bechill recalled how his father, despite his political position, brought him to a march on Washington in 1968 to protest the Vietnam War. And he recalled his father's stories about sitting down at segregated lunch counters in Detroit.

"He was always talking to us about what was important," his son said. "Equality and justice and helping others."

Mr. Bechill was passionate about sports, particularly Michigan and Maryland college teams and the Baltimore Ravens. His mind was a file for the smallest of statistics, details he could recite off the top of his head.

A natural storyteller, Mr. Bechill delighted his kids with tales, including one he made up about a woodsman in Alaska named Katcha-can-can.

"He had a great voice and a really good command of the English language," his son said. "These stories were just wonderful stories, and we loved them."

Services are being planned at Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Kensington.

In addition to his son, he is survived by his wife, Lucy Ann Bechill; and two other sons, Richard Bechill of Jupiter, Fla., and Robert Bechill of Lodi, Calif.

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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