Bill Gomer: The Teacher Rides Away

By Nick Pernokas

The 13-year-old boy sat in the shade of the air-conditioned railcar that he slept in at night. The inch-and-a-half thick harness made hard work for him as he pushed the awl blade through it. Still, his hands were strong. He’d been punching holes in leather since he was five, and he’d found out that he was a leatherworker when he was nine. The Florida heat would probably be harder on the elephants that would have to wear this harness anyway, he thought.

It was only natural that William Gomer would start working with leather at a young age. Bill was born in Stockton, California, in 1940, but the family moved to Tampa, Florida, shortly after his birth. When his mother divorced and remarried saddle maker Emmett Strickland, both Bill and his sister kept the Gomer name. Emmet and his father were both cobblers, as well as harness and saddlemakers. Emmet was determined that the leather trade would not continue to be the family trade for his stepson. He had witnessed the decline of the horse industry as motor vehicles replaced horsepower. Unfortunately, Bill was already helping around the shop, and he’d fallen in love with leatherwork. Perhaps that’s why Emmet got Bill a stint at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus when they were in their winter headquarters in Sarasota. Emmet told the manager that Bill could sleep under the railcars if necessary.

At the age of 15, Bill decided to strike out on his own to learn more about how they made saddles in the West. He rode the rails north to Pendleton, Oregon, and applied for a job at the Hamley and Company Saddlery. They told him to go home and get an education. Bill wore them down. Bill had watched his dad make saddles, so when the foreman at Hamley’s asked him if he knew how to build a saddle, he said yes. The foreman gave him a saddle tree, and two sides of leather, and told him to build a saddle. Although Bill had watched his father build many saddles, he did not know how to put one together himself. The old timers in the shop gave him hints and he was able to finish the first saddle. After building several saddles, Bill began to gain confidence.

At Hamley’s, Bill was impressed by the tooling that the craftsmen were doing. One in particular was a tooler named Mr. Rattan. When Bill tried to watch him, Rattan would turn his work over. Bill resorted to getting up on a balcony with a set of binoculars so he could watch Rattan work. One night, Bill cased a piecce of leather, took all 350 of Rattan’s stamping tools and made impressions of them. Now he had a tool catalog. He hid the leather for future reference.

The next day Rattan accused Bill of stealing his tool impressions. Bill denied it, but Rattan produced the leather and then cut it up. This marked the end of Bill’s employment at Hamley’s, so he headed south to Porter’s Saddlery in Phoenix. Porters didn’t work out, so Bill headed back to his dad’s shop in Florida. Emmet told Bill that he should do something else besides saddle work, so Bill went down the road to work for a competitor. There he was able to study with Ray Sullivan.

Bill entered the United States Army in 1963. He was trained as a M-113 Gavin APC driver and assigned to the 172nd Infantry Brigade at Ft. Richardson, Alaska. He disliked working in the armored battalion, but fate was smiling on him one day while passing the base craft shop. Bill went in to see what they had inside. He found several men inside tooling leather. Bill bought some leather and then using his own swivel knife, which he carried, he freehanded a pattern on his leather. A fellow carver and the instructor were impressed with his ability. The fellow carver was actually Major General Moore and he asked Bill if he’s like a job as an instructor in the craft shop. Bill’s commanding officer in the armored unit was reluctant to give Bill a transfer, but a call from General Moore changed his mind.

The officer got the crumpled paperwork out of the wastebasket, smoothed it out and signed it. Bill had become the Arts and Crafts Supervisor for Ft. Richardson. Teaching arts and crafts was to be his job in the military from then on.

On March 27th, 1964, after the Alaskan “Good Friday Earthquake,” Bill assisted in the survey and photography of the damage in the Anchorage area. During this time, he would with fellow leather carvers Ken Griffen and his wife, Roberta. The couple were also magicians and performed for military events. Bill had always been interested in sleight of hand and their common interests pulled them together. The Griffens asked Bill to help them on a tour for the USO, entertaining wounded troops aboard aircraft carriers with stars such as Bob Hope and Jane Mansfield. They pulled the strings to get Bill in the show. During the tour, Bill taught many wounded vets how to get started in leather work for therapy. Bill felt like he was doing something to help them and enjoyed it. The bodies that were being shipped back to the states, however, would haunt him for many years after that.

In 1965, Bill’s military career was cut short. He was given a hardship discharge to help care for his sister, who had been injured in an accident. There was no saddle shop to return to. Bill’s father had sold the business, tools and all.

Bill was ready to open his own shop, which he did in a local feed store. He didn’t like the ethics of the store owner though, so he decided to try something else.

Bill was approached by the students of the University of South Florida to help make sandals. He initially declined, but 4,000 pairs of sandals later, the Arts and Craft Center at the University of South Florida was established.

Tandy Leather hired Bill to put on some leathercraft classes at a Boy Scout camp near Ocala, Florida. Bill drove 150 miles to the camp and realized that he’d left his swivel knife and stamping mallet at home. He went to the maintenance shop and showed the maintenance man how to put a sharp, blade-type edge on a large nail to make a “pseudo” swivel knife. There was rawhide at the camp, so Bill wrapped some around a large stick and heated it to dry it. A coat of varnish was added to finish the stamping maul. The classes went on in true Scout fashion.

“It was the best demonstration that I’ve ever done,” Bill told Jim Linnell in an interview in 2017. “It’s not the tool, but the man behind the tool that makes it work.”

In the late Sixties, Mrs. Rattan, the wife of the carver who had gotten Bill fired at Hamley’s, called Bill. Mr. Rattan had passed away, but he had put Bill in his will to receive all of his leather tools. These were the ones that Bill had snuck impressions from many years earlier. Bill was moved by the gift and found that it reinforced his ideas about sharing his knowledge, and the regrets that could come from not doing it.

Bill married Eloise McRae in Florida. He took a job as a designer for Simco Saddle Company in 1970, and the couple moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Bill and Ella had their first child, William Gomer, there. Bill worked for Simco for two years, but he was fired for doing some carving for another company. Bill felt that there wasn’t anything in his contract that said he couldn’t do that.

Bill re-enlisted in the US Army again, as an Arts and Craft Specialist. He was assigned to the US Army Combined Arms Center, US Disciplinary Barracks at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1973. He found the task of teaching the prisoners challenging and very rewarding.

“We don’t rehabilitate anybody; that comes from the individual. But we can provide an atmosphere for it to happen. And that’s what I did,” said Bill, in 2017.

“The difference between the civilian prison system and the military prison system is that everybody in the military system has at least a high school education, and all of them are trained to kill,” says Will Gomer, Bill’s son.

A lot of Bill’s students were hardened criminals. Many were murderers. Bill had his life threatened on several occasions by men who eventually turned out to be good students.

“Dad saw through all of the crap and saw the potential these people had, and pulled that potential out,” says Will.

Some of the older inmates turned out to be great artists.

In addition to teaching, Bill served on the Honor Guard Drill and Ceremony Detail at Ft. Leavenworth. In 1975, the Gomer’s second child, Tonya, was borns.

Between the years of 1976 and 1980, Bill would move his family back and forth between Kansas and Ft. Richardson, Alaska. He again taught leather work on the military base in Alaska. In all, he put in about 14 years of service in the military penal system, because when he retired from the service, he went back the next day to run the program at Ft. Leavenworth as a civilian. Finally, in the early Eighties, Bill left the penal system. He opened his own shop in Jarbalo, Kansas, where he taught his craft for many years. It was not unusual for high-ranking officers to show up at his house to take classes from him in the garage shop. In the early 2000s, Bill relocated outside of Highland, Kansas, and set up a saddle making school in his house.

Bill was a fan of the old Hollywood westerns and usually wore his hat in a crease from that period.

“Dad was 6’2″, but when he wore that tall Montana Peak hat, he was an NBA player. You could pick Dad out in a crowd,” remembers Will.

Bill was friends with Bob Brown, a craftsman who had worked in many different occupations, but was well known for the holsters and gear that he built for stars like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. Bill considered Bob to be one of the unsung heroes of the leather business. When Bill visited Bob in Big Bear, California, he was like a kid in a candy store as Bob showed him his huge collection of cowboy movie memorabilia. Will Gomer can remember trying on Clayton Moore’s pistols and gun belt from The Lone Ranger during a visit.

In 1986, Bill was awarded the Al Stohlman Award for Achievement in Leathercraft and in 2016, Bill received the Academy of Western Artists Award for Master Leather Artisan. Bill traveled around the world teaching. He would stay up all night at an event, telling stories and tutoring students until the last one was ready to go home. Bill was proud to be able to build the saddle for the 125th anniversary of Kansas. He continued to work with leather into his last years.

Bill’s grandson, Noah Gomer, has fond memories of riding Bill’s shoulders to get peaches out of a tree that Bill couldn’t reach. Both of them got in trouble with Ella for that.

Bill battled COPD, as well as some tremors that were caused by a traumatic brain injury during his first military enlistment. But he continued to work on art projects until the end of his life.

“He was a heck of an artist. He had a long history in the business. I have quite a few of his pieces in the Elk Track Studio, and I’m proud to have them. They’re magnificent examples of where people can go with their leatherwork,” says Jim Linnell.

“It’s been a hard life, but I’ve enjoyed every bit of it.” – Bill Gomer

August 14, 1940 – May 3, 2022

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