Bill Douglass: Mr. Basque

In 2012 the Center for Basque Studies was privileged to publish William A. Douglass: Mr. Basque by Miel Elustondo. The subject of the book, Bill Douglass, is very near and dear to us here at the Center and we caught up with Bill to ask him some questions about the book and his role in the publication (in addition to being the books subject, he is also the translator of the English language edition!).

William A. Douglass: Mr. Basque, which was originally published in Spanish, is the result of a quite interesting collaboration between you and author Miel Elustondo. Could you tell us a bit about how the book came to be, your relationship with the author, and your role in its English version?

When I retired Miel came to me with the proposal of writing my biography. Over many years we had become close friends and he interviewed me regularly for short journalistic pieces—but now he was proposing a book. His plan was to tape record me whenever he happened to be in Reno or when I was passing through the Basque Country. In other words, it would be a common project that we would work on whenever it happened to be convenient. I agreed, but without fully appreciating the scope and duration of the finished project. In fact, Miel taped me on many occasions over several years. He was also intent upon collecting many photographs for the final manuscript. We began in 2000 and the Spanish version of the text came out in 2011! When the Center for Basque Studies decided to publish an English translation I insisted upon being the translator. But then as I began the work I came to realize that Miel had a European Basque audience in mind. Parts of the Spanish version would be of little interest to an English reader. Conversely, my Nevada life, particularly as a casino owner, was underdeveloped. So, with Miel’s blessing, I deleted, rearranged and even added some text. Because of this, the book is obviously more autobiographical in the English version.
The title of the book is a little misleading in that the book doesn’t just talk about your involvement with the Basque Country and Basque Studies. It also has a wealth of information about Nevada, especially your family’s roots in Tonopah and your youth and life in Reno. Could you tell us a little bit about your family’s background and your life growing up in a Reno that most people living here now have never experienced?

I am from an old Nevada family. My great grandfather was a mill man on the Comstock Lode and both my grandfather and grandmother were born there. My grandfather Billy Douglass was his own legend in the mining world and I was named for him. My father was born in Tonopah and I was born in Reno in 1939, when it had fewer than 30,000 people yet was the biggest town in the state. Along the way, for at least a short time, I was a professional reptile collector and fur trapper. So in the book I try to describe a Nevada that no longer exists.
You played a large role in the peace process in the Basque Country that resulted in 2011 with the final ceasefire called by ETA. Could you talk a little bit about the peace process in the Basque Country and your role in it?

There is a chapter on that in the book with considerable detail. I was hired in 2003 by the Henri Dunant Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva, Switzerland, to advise it as it prepared to become a mediator between ETA and the Spanish government. I arranged for the initial contact between ETA and the Centre and provided CHD with some of its parameters for the negotiations. The initiative led to the ceasefire that then collapsed after the bombing at Barajas airport in December of 2006. There is now a new truce in effect and it is my belief (although I cannot be certain) that there was continuity between our earlier failed effort and the present successful (so far) one. Many of the players in the second round were involved during our first one.
Any story about your life would be remiss without mentioning your outdoor pursuits and, especially, the role that fishing has played in your life. You have literally circled the globe on fishing adventures. Could you tell us a little about the role that fishing has played for you? Also, could you share with our readers some of the most memorable places you have traveled angling? If there was just one place in the world you could return, where would it be and why?

The last sentence of a book that I wrote about fly-fishing says “Indeed, for me angling has been a life’s tale and a spirit’s poem.” I cannot pick out any one destination as my favorite. It would be like answering the question “which of your children do you love the most?” I loved them all. I have been privileged to fish on all of the inhabited continents on the planet, many an isle as well. My fishing has always been more about anthropology than sport, since most of the venues have been back of beyond, far off the tourist track. My most recent trip is a good example. Last November I fished the Rewa River (or rather jungle lagoons off of it) in Guyana for South America’s largest freshwater fish—the arapaima. It gets to be several hundred pounds and several feet long. There have been maybe fifty arapaimas caught on a fly rod in the history of our sport. The common excuse for poor angling is “you should have been here yesterday.” Not this time. I landed six arapaimas and the largest ever taken on a fly rod—it was six and a half feet long and weighed over 300 pounds.
In addition to your full plate of activities in starting a Basque Studies Program and participating in the cultural life of Basques both in the United States and in the Basque Country, you have also had a full life as a businessperson in Reno. Could you tell us about your experiences, which I think are much more unfamiliar to our readers, as a gambling executive and businessperson?

My father ran a slot machine route in the mining camps and eventually owned casinos in Reno and Las Vegas. My three brothers went into the family business. As a university professor, I was the black sheep. But then, when I was about forty, my father gave me a small percentage of ownership in Reno’s Club Cal Neva. I have been in the casino business since then. I am currently president of Leisure Gaming. We have four small casinos in Pilot Oil Travel Centers across Interstate 80. The book talks about that background, as well as my recent foray into ranching in the high desert country of northern Nevada and California. I am also currently involved in building housing in Winnemucca for northern Nevada’s booming gold mining sector. That enterprise came up after publication of the book.