BRATTLEBORO—On the morning of Jan. 12, police responded to an emergency call on South Main Street.
When they arrived, they found the body of William “Bill” Joseph Guay.
Brattleboro Police determined that Guay, 56, died of natural causes. According to his death certificate, he died from “bronchopneumonia (presumed),” due to years of smoking.
His friends and fellow volunteers at Loaves and Fishes at Centre Congregational Church, where Guay served as chief dishwasher, volunteer recruiter, resident theological thinker, and quiet comedian, said he had struggled with a long illness.
Although his present-day life seemed clear to those who sought counsel from the man they described as “kind hearted,” “deeply spiritual,” “always helping people,” and “intensely private,” Guay’s past remained a mystery.
And for those from his past? His present was a mystery, too.
Guay’s sister, Michele, said she had searched for years for her brother.
She didn’t recognize his face when she arrived at Atamaniuk Funeral Home. He’d lost more than 100 pounds and looked sick, like he had cancer, she said.
A semi-circle scar near one of Bill’s eyes, however, confirmed for Guay that, yes, her brother was dead.
As kids, she, Bill, their brother Kevin, and sister Karen held snowball fights with slingshots and snowballs laced with pebbles. Bill Guay had the bad luck to get hit in the same spot two winters in a row.
“He was my best friend,” she said.
The power of showing up
One of the Loaves and Fishes regulars waiting in line for a meal leaned in to say, “Bill would do anything for anybody. He will be missed.”
From all accounts, Guay was homeless when he arrived in Brattleboro an estimated five years ago.
Fellow volunteer Robert Oeser said he thought Guay lived in a tent on Mount Wantastiquet in Hinsdale, N.H., for years until a friend offered permanent shelter.
The volunteers who spoke about Guay noted he carried a sadness; one of them, Cynthia Baldwin, said it seemed that he was doing penance.
Baldwin said she learned from Bill Guay that “everybody has something to give and you need to do it.”
“The world will be a tougher place without him,” she added.
Volunteer Jimmy, who didn’t want to give his last name, said he knew Guay from the time he arrived in the area. Jimmy hopes to gather funds from fellow volunteers for a brick in Bill Guay’s honor for the Centre Church’s walkway.
Guay always tried to teach him chess, Jimmy said, smiling. Jimmy is not a fan of chess.
“I keep him in my heart,” he said.
Volunteer John Moriarty described Guay as a smart, perceptive man whose “intelligence outstripped his education.”
“He was such a principled man,” Baldwin said.
Guay volunteered all over town, at Agape Christian Fellowship and local food shelves, she said.
Baldwin said his charm allowed him to get away with teasing the staunchest of volunteers. Resourceful, he obtained food donations in a pinch for the community meal through a network of friends.
Guay believed people should give back, Baldwin said. He brought many lost souls to Loaves and Fishes for a meal. He also expected them to help.
Baldwin interpreted Bill Guay’s message to others as, “Come on outside yourself. Reach out. Be a part of the world and give.”
“He could talk to everybody — I would love to figure out how to do that,” she said.
‘The Lord is taking care of me’
According to volunteers, Guay’s illness stopped him from volunteering at the soup kitchen in 2014.
The collective story goes like this: early in his volunteering, Guay took up washing the pots and pans. The hot water soothed his hands. He tried peeling potatoes but, because of swelling or pain, he returned to the hot dishwater.
Guay avoided medical care, saying “the Lord is taking care of me.”
One person remembers him using a supplement called dragon’s blood. (He later told this friend that taking the supplement might have demonstrated a lack of faith.)
Eventually, whatever affected his hands took up residence in his legs. Friends finally convinced him to get blood work.
After the test results came back, Guay was told to see a rheumatologist. Between his lack of money and his unwillingness to apply for Medicare, the medical intervention stopped.
“Whatever it was, it took him with a vengeance,” said Baldwin, who has returned to volunteering at Loaves and Fishes in Guay’s memory.
A matter of faith
Guay never made snap decisions, in Moriarty’s experience; if you’d ask him if he wanted to do something, he would answer, “I need to pray on it.” He felt confident God would tell him what to do.
For a self-proclaimed heathen like Moriarty, Guay’s faith took getting used to.
Moriarty once asked him, “Where are you from?”
Guay replied, “Right here. I’m here now.”
Quoting French philosopher Blaise Pascal, Oeser said, “‘The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.’ That sums up Bill.”
Oeser and Guay spent hours discussing early Christianity. Oeser borrowed library books, such as Recovering Jewish-Christian Sects and Gospels by Petri Luomanen, Th.D., on Guay’s behalf.
Without an official residence, Guay couldn’t get a library card, said Oeser.
Oeser, who remembers Guay reading mostly scholarly literature, listed a number of Christian texts and topics. It seems Guay’s studies extended beyond a lay person’s religion — at least that’s Oeser’s guess, since one needs a doctorate in theology to even grasp the list.
Guay knew all the pastors in town, Oeser continued, and he routinely asked them difficult spiritual questions.
Oeser will miss the deep conversations he and Bill shared, and the way he dug into issues.
Ruth Tilghman, another volunteer, said that Guay listened.
During discussions on same-sex marriage, Guay listened very carefully to the pro-marriage-equality conversations.
“The Bible doesn’t always like all the things going on here,” Tilghman remembers Guay saying.
Tilghman responded that people are people, and she dove back into the conversation.
Guay kept listening, she said. He listened to the volunteers’ teasing, their jokes, their concerns. He listened to the volunteers in same-sex relationships.
He later said to Tilghman, “I think I can see now that it can be different.”
Bill Guay’s ability to expand his understanding of the world impressed Tilghman. His willingness to remain present during difficult discussions showed a strength of character.
Tilghman noticed Guay’s sadness, but his past didn’t concern her.
“Do you need to know someone’s past to like them as a person?” she asked.
Guay showed there’s power in showing up and doing what needs to be done, she said.
What will she miss?
“His twinkling blue eyes. His giggly smirk,” she said.
His good friend Juanita Lane met Guay through her work at Agape Christian Fellowship.
“We were buddies,” she said. “He was like a son to me.”
Guay loved the ocean, and they drove to the seaside in the summer.
“He was a gentleman,” Lane said.
Guay cared for Lane after her open-heart surgery in December, despite his own illness.
But that was Bill Guay, she said. He helped everybody.
“He was a godly man” who believed God would take care of him, Lane continued.
“I guess God did, even if it means He took him home,” Lane said.
A sister’s memory
Michele Guay said she searched for her brother for three years. She will miss his smile, his laughter, and just knowing he was out there … somewhere.
“He had a big heart and always helped people,” she said.
Their sister Karen, 58, died of cancer in August. Michele wasn’t sure Bill knew.
The four siblings were born in Concord, N.H. After their parents divorced, they moved to New York. The siblings were raised Catholic, and Bill was an altar boy.
Bill was a happy and curious kid, Michele said. He could build or fix anything, from remodeling a kitchen to repairing a car.
He had the patience of a saint, she said, calling him a real philosopher, a hard worker, and a voracious reader. He loved to cook — his omelets were Michele’s favorites — and he was a veritable “Mr. Mom” who loved caring for kids.
According to his sister, Bill and his then-wife Sue lived in New Hampshire until their divorce a few years ago, which left the family with a lot of unanswered questions.
Bill was homeless for a time in New Hampshire after the divorce, Michele said. In 2010, he left New Hampshire for North Carolina.
He and Sue have four children: Spencer, 21; Logan, 19 and in the Air Force; Jordyn, 19 and mom to a toddler; and Evan, who had leukemia but is in remission.
Michele also echoed Bill’s Brattleboro friends when she said that her brother didn’t believe in handouts and was very private.
When their mother, Mary Elizabeth Ballard, was diagnosed with cancer in 1997, said Michele. “Bill never left her side.”
Michele said Bill worked as the general manager for a retail furniture company and that she worked part-time with him there.
He and a crew of people traveled around New England. The crew would arrive at a hotel around 11 p.m., she said. They would set up showrooms that night, spend the next day selling furniture, then pack up and move to the next town.
Bill loved the work and felt heartbroken when the company closed, she said, a feeling that echoed a similar disappointment with their father’s construction business. After years of work, Bill did not inherit any part of the business when their father died.
“A lot of bad breaks,” Michele said.
Sad times aside, she said she will keep the happy memories: Bill’s smile and his love.
And willingness to dive in to help his sister.
Guay described, as kids, how she and sister Karen dressed Bill in their dance costumes. The three performed skits for their neighborhood.
As young adults, Karen bailed as Michele’s model for her cosmetology test. Never fear — brother Bill stepped in. Michele remembers her fellow female test-takers laughed at Bill in his rollers and pin curls. This disrespect incensed the test administrators. The siblings were bumped to the front of the line.
“[Bill’s hair] looked absolutely beautiful,” said Michele, who has since left hairdressing to work in taxes and finance.
Michele Guay said she’s grateful her brother found his way to Brattleboro.
People care here and are kind, she said. She believes Bill landed in good hands. This comforts her.