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Spotlight on Grown up Islanders: Bill Russell

By PAULETTE LeBLANC - | Apr 21, 2021

6-year-old Bill Russell on Pine Island. PHOTO PROVIDED

pleblanc@breezenewspapers.com

Captain Bill Russell has been on Pine Island since he was 6 weeks old. His family had a restaurant called “The Castle” on the beach at Santa Cruz Island in California when they first heard about Pine Island.

“My grandfather liked to travel and adventure,” said Russell. “He and my father both had private little two-seater airplanes. They would fly from the coast of California to Miami on vacation – that was before navigation systems, when you used a compass to follow the roads and mountains. While they were in Miami they saw an article in Field and Stream Magazine about the old Matlacha Bridge and how it was called the most fishingist bridge in the world.”

After having read the article, Russell said, they rented a car, drove over to Matlacha, and ended up buying the Texaco station there, which ended up becoming Russell’s Texaco.

While growing up on the island, he vividly recalls the city of Cape Coral being developed. Russell said as a youngster he remembers sitting on a seawall watching the dragline coming beneath the bridge to dredge the canals.

At that time, there were no banks on the island, he said, and many of the islanders who, of course, were customers at the gas station, worked for the company developing Cape Coral. Russell recalls his mother going to get large sums of money on Fridays in order to cash their paychecks for them, saving them a trip to downtown Fort Myers.

“We were kind of like a bank for a while, too,” said Russell. “We’d give the guys their gas on credit through the week and then when they cashed their paychecks, they paid their fuel bill.”

One of the things common to islanders was a deep admiration for the commercial fisherman. Seen by, not just the kids in his day, but by most everyone on the island as heroes, respect for this profession was communal and widespread.

“That’s what most of us wanted to be when we were kids,” said Russell. “That’s who everybody respected and looked up to.”

Fishing has been a part of Russell’s life from the time he was a child, as he said one of his earliest memories is playing with a fish in a bucket of water. Throughout his school life, being on the water was a constant, especially through the summer.

“My best memories are of the outdoors,” said Russell. “When I was about 9 years old my parents would let me go fish on the bridge by myself. The gas station was like a little social club, so those guys were always there to watch me and make sure I didn’t get into any trouble. I had a small boat with a little junk-motor on it not long after that — that motor might get you back or it might not,” he said with a chuckle. “We were always doing something in the outdoors. We would rabbit hunt along the roads, or duck hunt, quail hunt and go spear fishing, knee boarding or water skiing.”

Every day seemed to be some kind of an outdoor adventure for Russell, as he said he watched the island change over time, and saw the city of Cape Coral go from nothing to what it is today.

“It was a really neat place to grow up,” Russell said, “unfortunately, like anything in life, I don’t think you appreciate it until time goes by and you see the changes.”

Russell said he can’t imagine what it would have been like to grow up anywhere else, or how he would have been any different from who he is. He admits it was nice not growing up in an environment where he was in a rat-race, but rather, having a three-mile drive to work as a fireman, and although he is an islander through and through, Russell admits that he loves the mountains. He also says if he won the lottery or came into a substantial amount of money, his life wouldn’t change enough for anybody to notice, saying the only change might be some new tires on his vehicle and, in true island fashion, he’d pay it forward.

His only advice for people who have come here to visit or are thinking of making a home here is to enjoy it.

“Slow down” said Russell. “Slow down and take it all in. I take people out on charters and they see dolphin and manatees and birds and it’s the coolest thing in the world, even though this is the same stuff I’ve seen for the past 60 years. I know I take this island for granted, and then seeing it through their eyes puts it back in perspective for me. That’s the coolest part of the job — watching some little kid watching the dolphins play.”