William Clyde "Uncle Bill" Owen
July 5, 1929-May 15, 2011
By Robin David and Marian Palaia
William Clyde "Uncle Bill" Owen, 81, passed away early in the morning on May 15 after an extended illness. Bill came to Bernal Heights in 1977 when Nancy White and his good friend Pat Ramseyer moved the Wild Side West from North Beach to Cortland Avenue. Unlike many lesbian or women's bars, the Wild Side was never a pickup joint where men and/or straights are not welcome. The Wild Side was also not like many neighborhood bars where if you walked in for the first time you'd be lucky to get a sideways glance. If you did walk in, you'd likely soon find yourself in conversation, and it might well be with Uncle Bill.
Up until about ten years ago, when Bill's failing health made it difficult for him to get there, he often tended bar at the Wild Side and was always a fixture, a stalwart, and a presence. By turns he was opinionated, slyly campy, grumpy, impish, and genuinely friendly. You were welcome at the Wild Side without regard to preference - sexual, political or religious - and without regard to social station, cab driver, PG&E worker, artist, computer wizard, or ne'er-do-well. You always felt that anything, no matter how outrageous as long as it wasn't meanspirited, could happen, and it often did. Bill was central in creating that atmosphere. Among other things, he founded the First Lesbyterian Church and was known as its chief prelate.
Born July 5, 1929, Bill was originally from Hollister. He served 16 years in three separate hitches in the military, first the Army, then the Air Force, and lastly the Navy, where he became an officer and a nurse. He told friends that he would have stayed in the Navy, but was fearful that if it was discovered that he was gay he would have gotten a dishonorable discharge. He left earlier than he would have liked, and without full benefits.
After the military, he worked as a nurse in various San Jose-area hospitals. When he moved to San Francisco, he worked with the Visiting Nurses Association for many years, the last several of which occurred during the onset of the AIDS epidemic, and Bill took care of many of those afflicted. Laid off in a budget crunch, he went to work for the Salvation Army Harbor Light Center as a nutritionist until 1992.
Bill lived in the same house on the corner of Ellsworth Street and Ogden Avenue - a small cottage originally built for workers at the Hunters Point shipyard - for more than thirty years. He loved dogs, gardening, and people, in pretty much that order. He leaves behind a grateful contingent of Wild Siders and others whose lives he touched in such a funny, wise, and gentle fashion. He will be greatly missed by many friends and loved ones. A memorial celebration at the Wild Side West will be held sometime in July.