Former South Pasadena Police Chief Bill Reese Documented Life’s Adventures

Bill Reese, who passed away in February after a brief battle with cancer, left a legacy of hard work, as a singer, actor, trombone player, orator, car collector and, of course, a writer and more.

For decades he talked about writing a book, reflecting on a memorable past, and finally years later Bill Reese walked the talk, living up to his reputation as a hard worker, allowing nothing to get in the way.

Once setting his sights, determined to make it happen, his dream indeed did come true.

“At last,” recalls Heather Rim, the daughter of Reese, a longtime South Pasadena police chief who passed away in February after a brief battle with cancer, “he set-out in December 2020 to produce 52 stories over the course of 12 months to capture more than 90 years of his life’s adventures.”

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Calling her father a “go-getter,” Rim, one of Reese’s six children, was extremely proud to see her dad far surpass that goal – compiling 174 personal stories in all while amassing 470 pages after the book’s completion four months ago. His memoirs won’t be sold to the public, but will forever be a keepsake for those closest to him.

“Our family gathered on Zoom video calls with my dad every Wednesday evening through 2021, where he excitedly shared his latest story contributions,” explained Rim, reliving her father’s collection of memories. “What a wonderful gift it was for us all to see his story unfold. From delivering newspapers with his Radio Flyer wagon in 1941 as World War II broke out in the Pacific, to earning his block M [Monterey Union High School where he sang in the choir, played football and basketball] varsity sweater that he wore on his 90th birthday, to starring as the apostle Peter in a traveling musical called ‘The Witness,’ to camping trips and international travel, to earning his doctorate from Pepperdine and becoming chief of police for South Pasadena, to falling in love with my mom, and creating countless memories with his family whom he cherished. It was all there.”

PHOTO : Reese Family | South News | On his way to a performance of “The Witness,” where he played the lead role of the Apostle Peter in 1982.

Some of Reese’s closest friends and family members were all there, along for the ride contributing their thoughts of the man who touched so many lives throughout his 92-years, more than 60 of those spent in South Pasadena.

Among them was Leo Bulgarini, a former neighbor, owner of Bulgarini Gelato Vino Cucina and filmmaker, who met Reese in the summer of 1999. “I lived two doors down from him on Milan Avenue,” explained Bulgarini.  “Even though many people were afraid to open that gate with the latch that was so hard to open – I decided to go in, climb the steps onto his porch, and ring that bell. The door opened, and there was the chief. His first words were ‘How did you get in?’ thinking I was trying to sell something.”

Seeking answers, Bulgarini asked, “Can you please help me with my project?” upon which Reese replied: “What project is that?”

Bulgarini told him he wanted help with a movie he was shooting, needed his expertise, and their friendship blossomed from there. The pair shared moments “that were great, like sitting in his den, watching the Lakers every time they played, “including the time he couldn’t hear the TV because his mother in law’s Chihuahua ate his hearing aid which he’d dropped on the ground.”

In 2001, the two were in Rome together for Bulgarini sister’s wedding, and they ran up 551 steps to St. Peter’s Dome “faster than any youngster there,” he recalled, enjoying the spectacular view once they reached the top. Reese was 71 at the time.

In the summer of 2007, before Bulgarini’s son, Lorenzo, was born, “I bought a Model A from Bill and took it to Altadena, where I now reside with my family,” recalls Leo. “The Model A needed some help, and I promised the chief that one day I would fix it and bring it down for a ride.”

It took Bulgarini 14 years to fulfill that promise, delivering on it January 22 of this year when he motored the fully restored antique car to Reese’s South Pasadena home.

“He drove it, with my son Lorenzo by his side, as I filmed,” Bulgarini said. “It was his last rodeo with that car.”

Recognizing that Reese’s his health was on the decline, Bulgarini said, “The chief was like a dad to me. I will never forget him, and will honor in him in the next movie I make.”

PHOTO: Reese Family | South News | Bill with his 1938 Chevrolet, one of over 100 cars he owned during his lifetime.

Reese was a true car aficionado, owning more than 100 throughout his lifetime. He was a member of the Model A Ford Club, the Vintage Chevrolet Club of America Foothill Region – serving as president for five years – and the Mercedes Benz Club. Over the years, Reese was a regular in the South Pasadena Festival of Balloons’ Fourth of July Parade, driving dignitaries and enjoying the loud cheers as he motored one of his classics down the parade route.

Since his passing, many who knew Reese have reached out, talking about his formidable talents and varied interests, from a stunningly gifted singing voice, acting ability, trombone player, orator to, of course, a writer, as family members continue to pour over his descriptive words retracing his life.

One of Reese’s devoted crusades was giving support to the South Pasadena Rotary Club where Marchelle Sellers was a fellow Rotarian and dear friend. With no hesitation, she insists Reese was the “perfect example of a Rotarian through and through, always giving care and service to others, to his family, to strangers, and even acting as Santa Claus for all those years,” said Sellers, noting his effort was “magical.”

PHOTO: Reese Family | South News | Proudly representing the Rotary Club of South Pasadena in the Festival of Balloons Parade.

Reese and his wife, Kathy, attended nearly every Rotary function and, like Sellers, was the backbone of the popular Taste of South Pasadena events where local restaurants provided delectable food items as part of a fundraiser. “He worked so hard, pounded the pavement, collected his auction forms and brought in funds for the club to give away. He brought warmth and genuineness and the human factor to all we did,” insisted Sellers. “He greeted every speaker we had and was always there with the first question. He listened, he learned and he shared with us.”

Sellers said Reese’s family meant everything to him, trusting it all to God. “He was a believer and in the end, knowing he was ‘ready to go home’ was pretty special,” she added. “I wanted him another 90+ years, but I am eternally grateful that we had him for as long as we did.”

PHOTO: Reese Family | South News | For his 90th birthday, Bill was treated to a special surprise by the Wheel of Fortune.

Further, she said: “My heart is just broken. A piece of real humanity is gone and so is my friend of 16 years.”

Fellow Rotarian Wendell L Webster knew Reese as a friend, a leader, and for his humor. Oh, and, of course, there was that voice, a truly remarkable voice that left listeners awestruck.

In 2007, Webster visited the Rotary Club of South Pasadena with a thought of moving his membership there someday. “When the time came to sing, as I am a keyboard player, I asked song-leader Bill Reese if he would like accompaniment. He happily responded, ‘yes,’ and our acquaintance began.”

PHOTO: Reese Family | South News | Singing with his family on Christmas Eve in December 2021.

Webster did join the local Rotary and became the regular accompanist, backing up Reese and his musical tones. Weekly phone calls between the pair became the norm to go over the music played during programs while nurturing their long friendship.

“Though he was consistently willing to defer to me in song choice, I asked for alternatives only to honor special occasions,” said Webster. “Bill was senior to me in the club, senior to me in age and already appropriately celebrated in the club. His welcome to the occasional change differed from any of my past experiences.”

When Webster let the Rotary Club know in 2011 that he had been diagnosed with cancer himself, the same type that Reese had contracted, “Bill told me he chaired a support group for people with that cancer type that met at Caltech’s Chandler Cafeteria,” Webster recalled. “I joined, and found that because of Bill’s leadership style. It was no holds barred. Some aspects of cancer are intensely personal. All of those came up, all were discussed forthrightly, and no one was offended. That was the result of Bill’s extraordinary leadership.”

In a salute to the man he misses, Webster said, “God bless you, Bill Reese. It was a privilege and a pleasure to know you!”

First meeting 65 years ago, John Rajcic and Reese became best friends over time. “For the first few years our families were very close,” said Rajcic. “As time went on our jobs tended to keep us geographically apart. Our friendship is difficult to explain because even though we were apart, I knew Bill was in my corner as I know, he knew I was in his. A true friend is never truly gone. Bill’s spirit lives in the memories of those who knew him. Friendship transcends death. Memories made will not be forgotten. Everyone became a better person for having known my friend Bill Reese.”

PHOTO: Reese Family | South News | Pictured as a junior at Monterey Union High School in 1946.

Esther Delinko, Reese’s administrative assistant when he served as South Pasadena police chief, was quick to point out “a part of history died on the 17th of February, 2022. Chief was a fierce but compassionate leader who emphasized education for our officers and compassion for the residents.”

Through Reese’s encouragement, Delinko returned to Cal State Northridge to secure her masters degree in public administration. “I shall be eternally grateful to him,” she said. “He had a plethora of historical knowledge of older crimes, the history of South Pasadena, the department, and former city employees. I often would reach out to him with questions of employees I had not met but whom he would recall. Up until the end, he had a phenomenal memory. He was not only a chief to me but a very dear friend who left an indelible mark not only on me but on those he met.”

Mike Neff, who worked for the South Pasadena Police Department for 36 years and retired in October 2018, likes to tell the story about how he met his wife Norma, who was a SPPD records manager at the time.

“We started dating and we both knew we had to inform the administration of our relationship,” recalls Neff. “I will never forget when we spoke with Chief Reese and his response to us. He told us he had one request, and that was he had to be invited to the wedding. We both felt touched by his support and his caring. I always had Chief Reese’s support during my career and I’m very grateful and honored to call him my friend.”

PHOTO: Reese Family | South News | Bill and his wife Kathy at a Rotary Christmas Party in 1975.

Neff started his career as a reserve police officer and parking control officer, and in 1985 Reese hired him as a police officer. “I will always be grateful for his confidence in me to provide service to the citizens of South Pasadena,” he said. “Chief Reese truly loved the South Pasadena Police Department and the City of South Pasadena.”

Lifelong friend John Bernardi was South Pasadena’s city manager when Reese was named police chief in 1985. Before that day, however, Bernardi saw a special young officer in Reese.

“As time went on I noticed he was given a desk in the basement of the police department where records were kept,” he said. “I thought what an odd place for a police officer who had the potential of having a doctorate, which is odd among police officers at that time. Bill was a lieutenant at the time I became city manager. When time came where I had a real opportunity to hire a new police chief, I had three choices. One was outside the city, one was another lieutenant and one was Bill.”

Reese went on to become the city’s the next police chief and from that day on he became Bernardi’s coffee partner. “Each morning we would slip out away from the hectic atmosphere of politics just to enjoy each other’s company and have a leisurely cup of coffee,” the former city manager said. “We spoke mainly about our families. Bill was a family man and as time went by he began camping with our families together.  One particular day at Lake Cahchuma, we were in separate boats and my son, John, started to catch bluegills by the ton.”

Reese yelled out, “Hey John, you are the ‘blue giller killer,’ Benardi joked, adding, “That comment has stood the test of time.”

Over a span of 42 years, Ed Jasno would tell others that Reese, is “a truly genuine, caring human being. He was so involved with everyone he knew, his community, the members of the South Pasadena Police Department, and, of course, his family.”

Jasno, another in a long list of friendships Reese built, said being around him was “joyful,” praising him for his “enthusiasm for life.”

PHOTO: Reese Family | South News | Celebrating his 90th birthday in 2019, in his “Block M” high school sweater, with more than 200 friends at a South Pasadena Block Party.

He will never forget the day Reese turned 90 and watched him dance in the street as part of the big celebration. “It was a perfect example of his love of life and his ability to embrace all of the moments he lived,” said Jasno. “We will miss him. His passing has left a large hole in our lives.”

Mike Antonovich, a former member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors representing the 5th District, first met Reese in the Army National Guard after joining during high school and later doing active duty upon graduation. “I met Bill when he was my second lieutenant in the Army,” said Antonovich, who later became a reserve officer for the South Pasadena Police Department sometime around 1966-1967 and worked with Reese.

“We’ve been friends for all these years,” said Antonovich. “It was a nice opportunity to know him first as a Army officer and later as a member of the South Pasadena Police Department and chief of police. He was a good man. He loved his community, church and family.”

As a U.S. veteran, Reese was a seaman in the Navy, and then enlisted in the Army and became a corporal and captain in his 20-plus years of military service. That led to a 30-year-career in law enforcement, starting as a patrolman with the South Pasadena Police Department in 1962, and working his way up the ranks to serve as South Pasadena’s chief of police from 1985 through retirement with distinction and honor in 1990.

PHOTO: Reese Family | South News | U.S. Army Captain proudly serving his country for more than 20 years.

Reese and William Eisele, a former chief for the South Pasadena Fire Department, became friends upon Eisele’s employment in early 1972. “Bill’s kind demeanor and professional attitude was an attribute that brought us closer as co workers in the city,” Eisele said.  “We followed the same goals and talked about them and life in general. Bill’s faith kept him grounded to be the best he could be in life and work including his family and friends. He and I had a love for older cars and being involved.”

Not only was he a Rotary Club member, but at one time Reese was also with Kiwanis. “Bill loved serving the citizens of South Pasadena as I did being that I was a South Pasadena native and our family were residents moving here in 1942,” recalled Eisele.

Eisele and Reese worked many calls together, including the 1984 Ole’s Hardware fire, site of Ace Hardware today, recognized as one of the most devastating blazes in city history.

“Bill was acting police chief and I was the first in fire captain on duty that night,” said Eisele looking back. “Bill took command of his police duties like a pro and interacted with the incident command as an excellent leader. Bill’s wife and children were his center focus and it showed when his daughter was able to take him to the Holy Land in his later life. Bill made an impact in my life and the City of South Pasadena that will stand forever.”

PHOTO: Reese Family | South News | Bill visiting Israel in 2014 at the site of Bet She’an National Park.

While words like genuine, compassionate, kind and joyful are used to describe Bill Reese, Rim will remember her father, yes, for all those attributes and more, but she is especially proud that his rich history and esteemed legacy, second to none, are captured in words.

“Just before he passed away, I was able to bring him the first hard copy of his book,” said Rim. “In his closing chapter he wrote, ‘I intend to leave the extension cord attached, ready to further address this story. It is by the love of the Lord and his overriding guidance that I offer this rendition of my unique journey.’”

Saying her dad will be deeply missed, Rim, on behalf of the Reese family, passed along in a message to her father: “You will always be etched in the pages of our hearts. Until we meet again…”

In lieu of flowers, donations in Reese’s name can be made to the South Pasadena Rotary Foundation, PO Box 362, South Pasadena, CA 91030 or