A Wish For William
William Gundry passed away tragically at the young age of 21 after a battle with addiction that included a year in recovery and an ill-fated relapse. He died 12 years ago in 2009, but in our conversation, he seems as large as life and the wound of his loss feels fresh.
William was a tall, good-looking kid with a magnetic personality and a great sense of humor. Will, as he was known to his friends, had a natural, outgoing manner and he was, as a classmate once remarked, “the glue that held a large group of different friends together”. He was a “sweetheart” and very affectionate; we used to call him, “Daddy’s little Wee-Yum”, said Frank. William’s grandmother, Mamish, always referred to William as “the gentleman of the family.” The series “Band of Brothers” was one of his all time favorite shows. He was very loyal to his friends. William and his older brother Michael were very close.
Compassion and empathy towards others came naturally to William. One of Frank’s favorite memories is a two month odyssey to Burma that he and William took in the Fall of 2006. “We went all over the country by boat, bus, taxi and plane. William was a natural “ambassador” of good-will, and his personality and presence opened many doors. Burma is a poor country and our trip was inspirational and eye-opening for him.
Karen fondly remembers seeing William in the St. Vincent de Paul Society kitchen washing the big soup pots, looking right at home! At Drake High School, he was involved with Vinnies for his “community service hours” and became his class liaison to SVDP. With his easygoing nature and quick wit, William brought a lighthearted and friendly spirit to the job there. He engaged with everyone and the clients and staff loved him.
He was a promising young man with the true makings of a leader. Unfortunately, like many young people, he began using recreational drugs beginning with marijuana, and then pills. He was introduced to Oxycontin through friends in high school and easily and quickly spiraled into addiction.
In 2008 William began a journey of recovery with a stay at the Alta Bates residential program, followed by seven months in a sober living residence in the East Bay. “We’re very proud of William and how hard he fought in his recovery” says Karen. With nine months of recovery, William moved back to Marin for a summer job.
On June 7, 2009, William went to San Francisco with some high school friends to listen to a band. After the show was over, he escorted an acquaintance home and headed off to where he had planned to stay with his friends. Finding himself alone in the early morning hours, he relapsed and fatally overdosed.
William is one of many tragic casualties of addiction that we see too often at St. Vincent de Paul Society of Marin. A chronic and progressive disease, addiction wreaks havoc on the lives of some truly bright and extraordinary people like William. Recovery requires constant vigilance to keep this insidious disease at bay. “If he would have stayed with his recovery”, Karen muses, “his legacy would be as a leader and a sympathetic, loving and supportive friend to people afflicted with this disease.” Though his life ended too soon, William’s memory has still managed to inspire others.
“When you lose a child, it is an unspeakable loss.” In their grief, Karen and Frank decided to reach out to the St. Vincent de Paul Society not only because of William’s personal connection there but because it exemplified the mission for which they wanted William to be remembered: “His love of people…he was truly dedicated, by nature, to not picking favorites or judging people…he was very generous.”
They got such a positive and loving response that they have continued for 12 years. Since they initiated the William Gundry Memorial Fund at St. Vincent’s in 2009, over $200,000 has been contributed by roughly 250 donors. “We found that people were so generous, we knew it was the right thing to do. St. Vincent de Paul Society was the perfect vehicle to continue his memory and represent his name. People are still giving donations in his memory.”
Karen also began bringing food donations to the dining room in San Rafael, helping in the kitchen chopping vegetables and volunteering in the filing room. “Our life is different now”, says Karen, of their involvement in the Free Dining Room. “It’s a sweet gift, being closer to those who are so vulnerable…they have no guile, nothing to hide.”
At this point, journeying through their grief on a secluded bench in Bolinas Park, our cheeks are wet with tears. Somehow this family has turned a deeply personal tragedy into a lighthouse for others. It is so moving it feels too big for words and we sit quietly for a few moments. Then these profound words tumble eloquently from Karen:
“We don’t know how anyone can get through the loss of a child. When you have so cataclysmically been brought to your knees, where do you go? This is too big. Human beings can’t comfort you with this kind of thing. There is no place to go except to God. It’s just you and your Creator. You are faced with a choice: you could crawl under a rock, hate everyone and be angry and bitter, or by God’s grace, be humbled and strive to find your way. As you’re still searching for reasons and meaning, you find that you’re given a task and you receive a measure of joy in serving others. It’s the way God works through your pain and suffering and uses it for good…in that, you discover what it means to live.”
When asked what message they most wish people would take away from their story, Karen replies:
“What I would like people to do is to “get uncomfortable”. Step out of your comfort zone and discover how precious it is to serve people who have less, and who are truly in need of help. When you do that, the people you serve become your family and you love them. It becomes the picture of fully living.”