Living A Wonderful Life

WORDS Nancy Blochberger
IMAGES courtesy Bill Engles

Nov 1, 2023 | Featured, People

After his usual eight hours of sleep, he rises and drives to his office. His mind is sharp, his desk is messy, but he knows what’s in every pile of papers. He logs onto his computer and prepares to meet his first client of the day. While this sounds like a typical workday, at age eighty-five, Bill Engles is anything but typical.

Bill and his brother David started Engles Financial Services in 1990 to help people with insurance and financial planning. “These days,” he explains, “I mainly focus on helping clients with Medicare enrollment and selecting a supplement. I am licensed and certified with all the major companies, so I can work with each person to choose the option that’s best for them.”

Bill is successful in business and blessed with good health, a quick wit, and boundless energy. But, given his age, one wonders what keeps him coming to work every day. “I’ve never liked seeing people taken advantage of when they are confused or just don’t know enough to make a good decision,” says Bill. “I’ve had several different careers, but in all of them, I’ve worked hard to give good value, good advice, and good service. The need to help others doesn’t just stop because of my age.”

Bill notes his work ethic probably came from growing up poor. “With three kids in tow, my parents moved from Batesville to Fort Smith where they thought an uneducated man like my father would be more likely to find work. As the Great Depression deepened, those three kids became seven. I was the first born in Fort Smith. We lived in one wooden shotgun house after another, always with cramped quarters and often with outdoor plumbing. My sisters wore dresses my mother sewed from Gingham Girl flour sacks. The boys took whatever odd jobs we could find to help out. When I was about seven, I worked selling roasted peanuts on Garrison Avenue. I made two cents a bag by selling them for a nickel apiece. My younger brother, Cecil, got a job when he was about ten. Too young to be hired by the newspaper to make home deliveries, he made a deal with an older boy that if he would sign up for more delivery routes, Cecil would do the work and pay him part of his earnings. Cecil didn’t have a bike, so he used mine. We always leaned on each other.”

Being poor may have made the Engles children resourceful, but it deepened their father’s depression. The struggle to feed and clothe his family was more than he could bear. One day he left, and never came back. They never saw or heard from him again.

“After Daddy left, it was up to me to take care of Mama and the younger kids,” Bill continued. “Television had come to Fort Smith, and Wise Electronics let me help with antenna installations. Pretty soon, there were so many people on a waiting list they agreed I could do installations on the weekends. I trained Cecil, who was ten years younger, to help me. We spent every hour we could digging and pouring concrete footings and clambering over rooftops to situate guywires to bring TV into homes all over this area. We were young, but we were good at it.

“Pretty soon, I had saved $1,200, and I opened an appliance and electronic shop a few doors down from Prince Drug on Towson Avenue. I had two months to make it before the money would run out. I managed to sign with Curtis Mathes to distribute their window air conditioners (we called them air coolers back then). I had to compete with Sears and other big companies, so I started selling at wholesale prices to anyone. Soon, Engles Sales and Service was the largest retailer of Mathes air conditioners and televisions in the country. Cecil worked alongside me, always the better salesman. We moved to a larger building and expanded into carrying washers, dryers, and other home appliances plus service and repair. We bought truckloads of RCA, Whirlpool, Westinghouse, Magnavox, Amana – all the big brands. Business was at its peak for us in the 1960s and 70s. We could put avocado green appliances in your kitchen, a TV in your wood-paneled den, and make your home cool and comfortable.”

The Engles brothers were as aggressive in their advertising as they were in their pricing. Their ads featured the duo as “Wild Bill” and “Calm Cecil.” They were one of the first television advertisers in the state, and they recorded their commercials live. Bill booked many popular personalities including Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan film star) and Burt Ward (who had played Robin of Batman fame) to perform in Fort Smith and promote his business. In the late 70s, Bill was ready to do something different. He sold the operation to Cecil, who at ninety-five, still runs the business and goes in to work every day.

Bill traveled the world, often accompanied by his two sons or his mother, and continued his adventures. For several years he lived in California where he became a Certified Medical Hypnotist. His clients included Mama Cass and Elizabeth Taylor who Bill says were both struggling with weight loss. Those west coast days also yielded the vintage wide-lapel tux jacket he is often seen wearing in Fort Smith. Bill recalls, “I became friends with a celebrity costumer. That jacket was originally designed for Elvis, but he had gained too much weight to wear it.” After a while, Bill returned to Fort Smith, became a Certified Financial Planner, and opened Engles Financial Services.

A natural storyteller, Bill talks freely about his adventures, but is more reticent about his legacy of giving. Throughout his life, Bill has quietly given to individuals when he knows of a special need. “I’ve been down on my luck more than once in my life. I know what it is to need help.”

Many nonprofits have benefited from his generosity including the Fort Smith Little Theatre. According to Joanne Peterson, FSLT President, “Bill attended our community theatre’s first performance in 1948. That makes him our ‘oldest’ patron! He supports us with his presence and applause, but he also looks for creative ways to provide financial support. For instance, each November, he buys a private performance so he can invite 200 of his friends and clients. He takes the stage before curtain time, tells jokes and hands out door prizes. He has a ball and so do his guests. When we reopened after the pandemic, Bill arranged for a special dress rehearsal performance of Smoke on the Mountain so children from the Fort Smith Boys and Girls Clubs and seniors at local residence centers could attend for free. Last year, he provided half-price kids tickets for our production of Annie. He said that story was special to him because his mother, like Annie, had been orphaned.

“This year, Bill sponsored that promotion again for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella because he wanted kids to experience live theatre and enjoy it as much as he does. He is a colorful character with a big personality and a big heart.”

Bill’s two sons and three grandchildren live out of state, but he’s happy to still live, work, share, and care in his hometown of Fort Smith. “I hosted a big birthday party when I turned ninety. Surprisingly, I made it to ninety-five, so I organized another big gig. I guess I’ll throw a real doozie if I make it to one hundred. I know I have a lot to be grateful for. I’m living a wonderful life.”

Do South Magazine

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