William “Bill” E. Taylor, who made southwest Colorado Springs his home for more than 50 years, passed away Jan. 30. Though Bill was 87 and had battled dementia for a decade, the loss still felt acute to many — from family members and longtime friends to former Young Life colleagues and fellow parishioners of First Congregational Church.
Lesser known, however, is the sadness of the local nonprofit community, which for nearly three decades has benefited from the generosity of Bill and his family. Bill didn’t talk about that giving much, but we would like to here — because it has made a huge difference to many organizations, including mine, the Colorado Springs affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness — NAMI Colorado Springs.
Bill wasn’t born into a lot of money. His working-class parents in Alabama used a small inheritance to send him and his siblings to Vanderbilt University, where before graduation he joined ROTC. After serving in the Army in the mid-1950s, he took a job in radiation safety at Argonne National Laboratory outside of Chicago. There he met Carol Elaine Bjorkman, whom he married in 1959.
He also became friendly with people affiliated with a nascent, faith-based nonprofit called Young Life. In 1964, with Bill at a career crossroads, he and Carol took their three boys — with a daughter, Ann, still to come — to Colorado Springs so that Bill could accept an administrative job at Young Life headquarters. Soon they moved into a house on Andromeda Drive and Bill was on his way to a 30-year career, including 15 years as the vanguard for new youth ministries in the International Division.
Bill thought of philanthropy as part of a good Christian life. Carol did, too. After building the Victor Surgical Gut Manufacturing Co. — making surgical sutures and tennis racket strings, with a spinoff into the tennis racket business — her parents and uncle had formed the Chicago-based Bjorkman Charitable Foundation.
In 1993, Carol’s family split the foundation, with the new Carl George Bjorkman Foundation developed to support the Colorado Springs area. The foundation was relatively modest in size, and it wasn’t always easy to practice the kind of philanthropy the Taylors wanted to practice. In the late ’90s, the tech collapse hit foundation investments hard. Bill replenished foundation assets with his own retirement funds.
Bill’s youngest son, Clay, who lives near Stratton Open Space, says the foundation has probably awarded over $3 million during its 28 years. It’s done so quietly, and often via sustaining gifts for organizations close to Bill’s heart, including Mesa House, Partners in Housing and the Dale House Project.
The mission of NAMI Colorado Springs — to support individuals and families living with mental illness — has taken on a particular and heavy resonance for the Taylors. After struggling with bipolar disorder and addiction, their daughter Ann died by suicide in 1995. Her death, Bill said, hastened Carol’s own death in 1997. In 2008, Carol and Bill’s middle son, Todd, died from complications of schizophrenia.
At Clay’s recommendation, the foundation gave its first gift — $5,000 — to NAMI in 2009. With a $20,000 gift in 2010, it laid the groundwork for NAMI to hire an executive director. That single gift completely changed the arc of our organization. After nearly 30 years as an all-volunteer operation, NAMI, under the leadership of Lori Jarvis-Steinwert, has since built a half-million-dollar budget, quadrupled its programs, and led or co-led five community-wide mental health initiatives. Clay and the Bjorkman Foundation have continued to fuel these efforts, giving influential gifts all along the way.
Even at Bill’s memorial service, this kind of generosity was downplayed. Within the family, it’s simply part of life.
“We all need each other, and we all have a lot to offer,” Clay says. “I hope Dad‘s life has inspired others. He found causes he loved and then really supported them. Dad taught me that giving can change people’s lives for the better, especially your own life.”
Particularly in uncertain times, it’s impossible to overstate how important it is for a community to have forces for good like Bill Taylor. We mourn his absence, but feel his impact every day.