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Bill Connally, Channel Isles Tour Leader, Dies at 58

November 26, 1987|ELIZABETH TURNER | Times Staff Writer

Bill Connally, founder of Island Packer Co., the first and largest company to provide transportation to the Channel Islands specifically for tourists, died Sunday at age 58 after a brief battle with cancer. Funeral services will be private.

"No other boat company and no other person cared enough for years and years to take people out there who just wanted to see the islands," said Nick Whelan, a ranger for Channel Islands National Park since 1972. "It wasn't economically feasible. Without Bill's personality, most members of the public wouldn't have had the opportunity to visit the islands. It just wouldn't have been done."

Connally's enthusiasm for sharing the islands was outweighed only by his respect for their fragile ecology, Whelan said.

"He never allowed the park's resources to take a back seat to tourists," Whelan said. "He really cared about the islands and taught people non-consumptive, non-manipulative enjoyment of the park."

Billie Marion Connally was born Aug. 27, 1929, in El Paso. He dropped out of school at 16 to join the Army before the war was over. Shortly after he enlisted, however, his arm was crushed when a cable that was hoisting a log snapped. He was discharged without ever having seen combat.

He spent a few years on a Nicaraguan freighter, carrying bananas from Central America to the United States. But Connally married and settled down to raise four children in Granada Hills, working for Rocketdyne in Canoga Park as an engineering technician.

An Avid Backpacker

He took enough adult classes to receive a high school diploma, but went on to teach himself enough engineering to become a first-rate mechanical design engineer. His design projects ranged from the "black box" that records flight data used by investigators of airplane crashes to components of Apollo 11.

Connally was a staunch supporter of the Granada Hills YMCA and an avid backpacker who often led expeditions into the Sierra. He promised his children that one day he'd give up engineering and start a business packing hikers into the mountains.

He moved his family to Oxnard Shores in 1965 and he shifted his focus a bit.

"He was getting tired of the rat race in the San Fernando Valley," son Mark said. "Once we moved out to the coast here, he got real curious about the Channel Islands, but there was no easy way to get out there. Nobody knew about them but the fishermen."

During the Christmas holiday season of 1967, Connally chartered a fishing boat to Anacapa Island, and he and his family spent a week camping out there. "From then on, it was his goal to keep getting back out there," Mark Connally said. "He fell in love with the islands."

Soon after, Connally met a man in a bar who had a 50-foot World War II-vintage, converted Navy launch he wanted to sell. Before the night was over, they had struck a deal.

First Charter in 1980

Connally christened the boat the Island Packer--a combination of the old dream of the Sierra pack company and the new venture in island cruises. He took out his first charter to the Channel Islands with two passengers in 1968.

Island Packers has never been a much of a moneymaking venture, Mark Connally said. Before the Channel Islands became a national park in 1980, few people had much interest in going out to them, and the business is seasonal at best. Even when demand is high, Island Packer limits the number of tourists it will take out to the islands in order to minimize the ecological impact.

The first year of operation was especially tough. The Island Packer was caught in a storm and was dashed against the rocks of Anacapa Island. Connally had originally planned to make Island Packer his sole job, but for 17 years, he subsidized the operation by working as a design engineer.

He was helped with the business by his sons, Mark and Kirk, and a daughter, Cherryl Wendel. Another son, Brad, left Island Packer, but stayed with the sea as a fisherman.

The company managed to grow to four power vessels and plus two tall ships, The Swift of Ipswich and the Shearwater. The Island Packer brought 25,000 people to Anacapa Island last year.

"We've all been involved in the business for 19 years, so I think we'll do fine," Mark Connally said. "But we'll miss a lot of his innovative, wild scheming."

Friends remember Connally incessantly talking in a cigarette-roughened voice, constantly inventing, relentlessly coming up with new and better ways of doing things.

"His ideas were just non-stop," said Marla Daily, Channel Islands historian for the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. "They weren't fly-by-night ideas. His inventions have been to the bottom of the ocean and are orbiting in outer space. It gives you an idea of the scope of his ability.

"A lot of people might have thought that Connally's concept of a floating classroom was a hair-balled scheme," Daily said. "But it's turned out to be the main educator for marine research on the West Coast.

"Bill Connally was the epitome of a salty sea dog," she said. "He was very tall, very thin, his face was well-weathered, showing years upon the ocean.

"He didn't have rough edges inside though," she said. "He had this gentleness about him."

Stephen Leatherwood, senior staff biologist at Hubbs Marine Research Center, San Diego, said Connally's example inspired him to leave teaching for marine biology.

"His effervescence and enthusiasm were infectious," he said. "He raised the level of challenge so that you felt you had to raise yours to match. If our greatest legacy is our children and our friends and how they feel about us, he's left behind a rich one indeed."

In addition to his sons and his daughter, Connally is survived by his wife, Lillian.

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