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Bill Bilson, early sporting goods merchant, dies at age 92
• Former Ceres School Board trustee, Lions Club member dies
Bill Bilson
Bilson, early sporting goods merchant, dies at age 92 - photo by Jeff Benziger

Bill Bilson, who founded a sporting goods shop in downtown Ceres in 1956 and who served on the Ceres School Board from 1969 to 1973, passed away on Friday.

Services will be private. A Celebration of Life will be held at a later date.

“He was an amazing man,” said daughter-in-law Andrea Bilson.

Bill and wife Betty opened Bilson’s Sporting Goods in a 1,000-square-foot space of the building now fully occupied by Alfonso’s Mexican Restaurant on Lawrence Street. At the time Ceres had about 7,000 residents. He felt the business was compatible with family life and a sporting goods store dovetailed with his interest as a hunter and fisherman; and since he was good with repairing guns, bicycles and boat motors.

Business picked up after the move to the southeast corner of Fourth and North streets so he later purchased the building in 1959 or 1960. Bill bought Bart’s Sporting Goods on Lander Avenue in Turlock and turned it into his second shop but he couldn’t manage both stores so he closed the Ceres store, remaining as a resident. His son later managed Bilson’s in Turlock. Bill and Betty became involved in Christmas tree sales when Bill was a member of the Ceres Lions Club and for a time serving as president. Bill served as a trustee on the Ceres School Board from 1969 to 1973.

After 42 years of living in Ceres, Bill and Betty moved to Modesto 25 years ago.

Bill was born Feb. 10, 1929 in Modesto and attended schools in Ceres, growing up with Ronald and Claire Berryhill, Floyd Sneed and Leroy Cunningham, who later became police chief.

In a 2016 interview with the Courier, Bill remembered Fourth Street having wooden sidewalks as a boy. He also remembers the poles to tie up horses. 

Bill’s family settled in Ceres in 1901 when his grandfather, William Bilson, who was a baker, came from Michigan. An uncle, Albert Bilson, owned and operated a barber shop in the early 1900s behind the former Ceres Drug Store at the northwest corner of Fourth and Lawrence. His father Cecil, graduated from Ceres High School in 1918 and became a baker, working for the Zenardi family bakery.

Bill later attended Lincoln School in Modesto – it no longer exists – where one of his classmates was Maryellen became Mrs. Clare Berryhill. Bill and Clare went to college together after Bill graduated from Modesto High School in 1946.

Bill served in the Air Force starting in 1951 met future wife Betty Gayle Thomas at a dance in Greenville, Miss. The two were married two days after he graduated from Air Force training in 1952. Bill flew 100 air-to-air combat missions aboard F-86s during his 10-month deployment during the Korean Conflict. After serving overseas, Bill returned to Nellis Air Force Base where he was an air-to-air gunnery instructor for two years.

After leaving the Air Force in 1955, the Bilsons moved to Ceres.

Survivors include his wife of 69 years; as well as four children and their spouses, Debbie Holtzclaw, Steve and Jeanne Bilson, Susan and Roger Bent, and Brad and Andrea Bilson; and 12 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Bilson in cockpit
Bill Bilson during his years serving in the Air Force.