One of Baton Rouge’s most beloved figures, William “Bill” Black, known to most as “Buckskin” Bill,” died Wednesday, according to family members.
For decades, Black appeared daily on WAFB-TV in his cowboy character, charming generations of children with his homespun, good natured presence. His children's shows, "Storyland" aired in the morning and "The Buckskin Bill Show" aired in the afternoon on the television station Monday through Friday from 1955 to 1988. At the time, it held the national record for the longest-running children's show. It shifted to a Saturday morning only show, but was canceled a year later. He retired from the station in 1990.
Black reentered the public eye in 1994 when he was elected to the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board as part of a school reform initiative, replacing most of the sitting board member. Representing the Broadmoor area, Black remained on the board until 2010.
Ed Elkins, master control operator at WAFB, remembers moving from New Orleans to Baton Rouge in 1977 to work on Black’s TV show as a cameraman and later doing audio. Elkins said he knew nothing about the legend of “Buckskin Bill,” but learned quickly. When they met other people, “I would be invisible,” he recalled.
“(Black) was the star of Baton Rouge. He was the man,” Elkins said. “Just think how many children that have grown up to be icons of the community that watched his show.”
Donna Britt, WAFB’s anchor, came to the TV station in 1981 and had a similar experience.
“He was an icon from the word go,” Britt recalled. “He carried himself with dignity. He seemed to know everyone in the world.”
A family member told WAFB that Black died after getting an infection in the wake of partial hip replacement surgery that he had after breaking his hip in November. His wife, Elma, died April 5. Black is survived by a son and two daughters.
Black’s granddaughter Megan Musso said the family is still making funeral arrangements for Black.
Though Black’s show went off the air before she was born, Musso grew up with stories of her pawpaw and watching VHS tapes of his performances, but she said he never boasted about himself.
“I had lots of teachers who would ask me to do school reports on him because they admired him so much,” said Musso. “Even though I knew how much he meant to the community, he was still just my pawpaw.”
Musso, daughter of Black’s youngest child, Ginger Musso, said Black was a true performer even with his grandkids and she grew up playing the game, “Hully Gully,” before she even knew where it came from on Black’s TV show.
What will she miss? Musso offers a quick list: “His stories, his jokes. He would sing very well. And his laugh.”
Before becoming “Buckskin Bill,” Black worked his way through college as a rodeo clown and was a comic and emcee in Army shows during his stint in the Korean War, according to WAFB.
Black was instrumental in bringing a zoo to Baton Rouge. For 15 years, Black signed off each day with "Remember, Baton Rouge needs a zoo” until the zoo finally opened in Easter 1970. Children in WAFB's audience were enlisted in a “Elephant March,” collecting 650,000 pennies to purchase the zoo’s first two elephants in the late 60s, appropriately named “Penny” and “Penny Too.”
Phil Frost, director of BREC’s Baton Rouge Zoo, said the zoo is “forever indebted and is truly grateful for Black’s work on behalf of the zoo.
“Bill Black will be immensely missed; however, his memory will live on as a trailblazer who brought together the community for a common cause,” Frost said.
Black returned regularly to the zoo throughout the years.
“As I have gone out into the community and spoken to clubs and organizations, it has been rare to not have someone approach me and tell me about their fond memories and experience with the Penny March and Buckskin Bill,” Frost said. “I have never grown tired of hearing the community express how they, as a child, gave pennies. “
Frost said Black’s legacy continues; the zoo’s current mascot is call “Penny.”
Over the years, Black won numerous awards for his activities, including accolades from the National Association of Broadcasters and Baton Rouge's highest civic honor, the Golden Deeds Award. In 1989, he received the Baton Rouge Council on Human Relations' annual Humanitarian Award.
The wellbeing of children was an abiding passion for Black. His passion was shared by his wife, Elma, a parenting and drug abuse specialist, she helped found the “I Care Program,” which provides drug, violence and crisis counseling to children all over East Baton Rouge Parish.
Black was enlisted to run for the School Board in 1994 by the group, Community Action for Public Education, or CAPE. Black won with 82 percent of the vote, joining a board filled with newcomers to elected office like himself.
That board, sometimes referred to as the “CAPE board,” hired a new superintendent, and negotiated a “consent decree” with the U.S. Justice Department, which ended cross-town busing and was a key stepping stone to ending one of the nation’s longest running and rancorous desegregation cases with a final settlement in 2003.
Jerry Arbour joined the School Board in 2015 and met Black, but it wasn’t the first time they’d met: He’d been on Black’s TV show when he was boy about 9 years old. It was a highlight of his young life.
“You were a big dog if you could go on the Buckskin Bill show,” Arbour said.
Arbour said he would often look at how Black was voting on issues to determine his own stance.
“He could be talking and you would say, ‘I never thought about that in that way,’ and maybe change your mind,” Arbour said.
Black’s good humor also came in handy a lot.
“Bill could always have a comment and an observation that would relieve a lot of tension in the room,” Black said.
Lynn West, the board’s secretary from 2000 to 2017, said that she grew close to Black, calling him frequently even after he left the board. She said she tried to call him over the holidays, including the day before he died, not realizing he was ill. She thought he would call her back like he always did.
“He cared about the community, and he cared about the children in the community,” West said. “He wanted them to get a good education. He made choices not just for his district but the whole district. That set him apart.”
Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome offered her condolences to Black's family.
"Not only did he delight generations of Baton Rouge children by giving them their first opportunity to appear on television," Broome said, "he did so while providing some of the first multimedia educational materials in the country and teaching the importance of charity and community.
"He was a man ahead of his time and lived his life demonstrating that it is the community’s central mission to take care of each other," she continued.
Advocate staff writer Emma Discher contributed to this story.
Click here to read more about Black's legacy, via WAFB-TV.