Bill Wen escaped from China shortly after the Communists took over the country. He was only about 13 years old at the time. Being the oldest of 5 children, Bill had been working in the fields to support the family. His mother wanted him to leave to find a better life, hoping that he would be able to send money home to help support her and his younger brothers and sister. The Wen family had been declared “enemies of the people” because they were Nationalist Chinese and had been supporters of the deposed Chiang Kai Shek. About 2 million Nationalists refugees had fled to Taiwan along with Chiang and 600,000 Nationalists troops, but Bill’s family was still in Shanghai.
Bill said it was very difficult to get out of China, but he was finally given permission by the government to be away for one year “in order to find his father.” But, before he left, Bill and his mother agreed that he should never return to China, whether he found his father or not. With only a second grade education, Bill made his way first to Macau, an autonomous region of southern China, and a Portuguese territory. There he spent 14 months working in fast food restaurants. After finally getting permission to enter Hong Kong as a Macau resident, Bill made contact with his grandfather, then living in Washington, D.C. With his grandfather’s help, Bill was able to come directly to Washington, D.C. after having spent a little less than two years in Hong Kong. When he failed to return to China after the one year time limit had expired, Bill’s mother was jailed for several days and required to write letters to Bill demanding that he return. Bill received the letters but, as he put it, “my mother and I had prior understandings.”
How was it that Bill’s grandfather was living in the United States? Decades before the Communist Revolution, China’s last emperor selected two young men to be sent to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Bill’s grandfather was one of those two. He graduated from West Point, returned to China to serve in the army, and later returned to the United States.
During his time in Hong Kong, Bill met a young Chinese woman named Agnes. Today she is Bill’s wife. The two kept in touch over a 7 year period after Bill left Hong Kong for the U.S. Bill and Agnes exchanged audio tapes, pictures, and letters. Besides working hard to learn the language and the new culture, Bill worked a couple of jobs. But his life changed when he found somebody at a D.C. high school, who was willing to make an exception, was willing to enroll him in high school despite his 2nd grade education – “as long as he kept up.” And, keep up he did! He graduated from high school, and enrolled at George Washington University where he earned a BA in Engineering. While still in Washington, D.C., Bill was invited to interview at Ford Motor in Dearborn. He got the job, and ended up working from 9-5 in Dearborn, and 6-10 p.m. as an engineer in Warren, Michigan. He also worked week-ends to help finance the continuation of his education at Wayne State University where he earned a Master’s Degree in Engineering.
Bill says, “I’ve had a wonderful life.” He and Agnes have three children – Teresa, who is a nurse, and now lives in Shanghai. Maria, who works in marketing, and lives in Huntington, N.Y. and son, Anthony, who also has a degree in Engineering, and is now a patent attorney in Evanston, IL. All three children graduated from U. of M. Bill and Agnes also have six grandchildren. Bill has tried to convey to all the kids how lucky they are. He tells them that he never tasted ice cream or a coke until he was probably 13 or 14 years old. In fact, it seems Bill never had much of anything as a kid. Except perseverance.
In talking about how we all have influential people in our lives, Bill mentioned Ed Bozian, one of his superiors at Ford, as a person who had a major impact on him. Ed was an immigrant from Armenia and struggled to make his way in life, much the same way Bill had done. He believed that the the right way to live was “to treat every person you meet with fairness and respect, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or race.” Bill has made that philosophy central to his own life. He says, “It’s the best way.” He also talked about his grandfather’s influence. Bill was told by his grandfather to always remember “Duty, Honor, Country,” the West Point motto, and a phrase immortalized by General of the Army Douglas MacArthur in his Farewell Address to the cadets of the U.S. Military Academy in May, 1962.
Bill laughed and dismissed my comparing him to George Washington. Nevertheless, Bill is a “founding father.” He says he didn’t really “found” anything, but while taking a break from badminton here at MLM, he noticed 6 or 8 people playing a game that looked like a lot of fun. Among that small group were Lucy White and Liz Cline. This would have been about 2007-08. The original group of players, he says, “was not more than about 10. We were using just two courts.”
The reason most of us may think of Bill as the “Founding Father of Pickle Ball at MLM” is probably because he was the “Prime Mover of Pickle Ball here at MLM” in that he was the person who undertook coordinating the game and the players. He got each new player to sign up for an email list, started organizing occasional luncheons, sent out information pertaining to pickle ball news, and made sure everyone understood the rules and protocols of play. By the time Bill “retired” from his role as coordinator there were about 140 players on the email list. All of us who play this game owe our thanks to Bill Wen for his successful effort to establish pickle ball as a growing sport in Ann Arbor. It has brought great joy, as well as the benefits of exercise, to a lot of people.
Bill says the best part about the game, for him, is all the people – and keeping fit. He feels the most challenging part of the game is dinking.
Bill Wen is 76 years old, and going strong! Good thing somebody in the D.C. high school gave him a chance to get an education.