Death of Park Service’s Bill Line stuns those who knew him

Petula Dvorak
Columnist October 8, 2012

With his Dudley Do-Right chin and broadcaster hair, Bill Line was the voice of Washington’s cherry blossoms, parades, protests and national monuments.

As the longtime spokesman for the National Park Service in the District, he was our National Ranger, stiff and proper, adjusting his ranger hat just so before reminding us to use Metro rather than drive to the Mall.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

But one Sunday every month, he would leave his pew and go before the altar at his church for the communal celebration of the Anointing of the Sick, to be prayed over and blessed, begging for salvation from the illness that was inside him.

“Bill would always, always be there on healing night,” a member of his church told me.

But this past Sunday, he was missing. His friends and fellow worshipers said they learned why on Monday: Bill was the 56-year-old man who police say had killed himself with a knife in his Northwest Washington home Sunday. That knocked the wind out of just about everyone who knew him.

I worked with Bill for years as a reporter. He could be prickly, like any public information officer who gets badgered by reporters on a daily basis.

But even after I left the national parks beat, we kept having lunch. We enjoyed talking about bicycling and swimming and food and Prague. And he could never say enough about his mom or his beloved home state of Wisconsin.

And yet there was some underlying sadness there. He would brush away too many questions about how he was doing, especially after his mom died. And sometimes he’d lose his temper, exploding about a politician or an issue.

Maybe that’s hindsight talking. But that mental highlight reel of all the times he seemed sad is spinning among his friends at Dignity Washington, the community of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics, which was a big part of Bill’s life.

He sang in the choir for 20 years, was a cantor and occasional lector. He was a leader and a pillar.

“I would always be anxious to hear what Bill had to say about this or that,” said Daniel Barutta, president of Dignity Washington. “He always was up on all the news, everything happening in Washington. He knew what to say.”

But Bill also felt beleaguered, telling at least one member of the congregation that he was on a downward slope, Barutta said.

“When someone comes to be anointed, one never knows what challenges they’re facing or what burdens they’re carrying, and I’m so very, very sad that Bill’s burdens seem to have become too heavy to bear,” said Tim MacGeorge, who also knew Bill from the church.

I told Bill months ago that we needed to check out a new Czech restaurant in town. We said we’d do it in April, then June, then October. I hadn’t called him this month.

Having that meal wouldn’t have saved Bill. I know that. But what if there were a dozen of us who’d followed through on promises to get together. Would that have helped?

Bill was pretty beaten up by the media. TBD.com called him one of Washington’s 10 Angriest People this year after he got into a shouting match with a New York Times reporter.

“At this point, it’s perplexing to see how National Park Service spokesman Bill Line still has a job,” wrote a reporter at the Washington City Paper two years ago.

He took his job very seriously, and that criticism stung. See, Bill was in broadcast news once. He was a producer and assignment editor for NBC for five years, then the White House and Supreme Court news producer for Fox News Channel for six years. And the way he told it to me, he didn’t want to leave when he was let go in a series of layoffs and replaced by much younger workers.

So it wasn’t easy to put on that ranger hat in 2001 and stand on the other side of the camera.

He taught aqua aerobics classes at the downtown YMCA, rode his bike everywhere and doted on his mother.

“For an older man, he kept himself in such great physical shape,” Barutta said. “But just because you’re sculpted on the outside, it doesn’t always mean you’re well on the inside.”

It is the second suicide of a man in the Dignity Washington group in two years.

“We’ve been talking so much in the LGBTQ community about young gay suicides, we sometimes forget that there are other stages of life that are difficult for this community, too,” Barutta said.

You have some trouble at work, you’re already part of a minority, it can be difficult to cope, especially when the community — and Washington — comes to you for advice, information, help, criticism, cherry blossom peak times. Bill loved Washington, but Washington didn’t always love him back.

Bill left a suicide note, Barutta said. He asked to be cremated and wanted his remains to be sent back home to Wisconsin. I just hope he knew that he’d be mourned in both places.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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