Ever since he was a boy, Bill Stander has known the value of being able to just sit back and whittle away for hours.
Some of the best entertainment for the youngster growing up in bayou country in Louisiana was watching the old-timers _ Domingo Campo, Nicolas "Chico" Gonzales and Adam Pape _ who could take blocks of cypress or tupelo gum wood and transform them into duck decoys or once in a while, a toy gun for a member of their patient audience.
It wasn't long before Stander found himself picking up his own pocketknife to give it a try, often under the watchful eye of his elders. By today's standards their techniques might seem primitive, but they continue to be a source of admiration for Stander. "Back then all's you used was a hatchet and a pocketknife," he says. "I remember when I was about 4 or 5 years old and Domingo Campo showed me how to sand with a piece of broken glass. Today, geez, everything's modern."
In the old days the primitive bird carvings served a purpose for those who hunted. In recent years the wooden decoys have become worth thousands of dollars to collectors. Many examples of the "Louisiana fella's" decoys can be found in a book written by Charles W. Frank, called Louisiana Duck Decoys. And although numerous pages are devoted to the works of Campo, Gonzales and Pape, a photograph of one of Stander's early decoy's also made the grade.
What started as a rather informal apprenticeship more than 70 years ago has blossomed into a lifetime hobby for Stander. Over the years, he has filled his home with his own decoys, beautiful birds so lifelike that often only touch can convince an observer otherwise. Walls, shelves and the tops of various pieces of furniture have become the nesting place for a variety of ducks. Stander's wife, Kitty, is quick to proclaim, "This is the duck house _ we call it the quack house." But cardinals, blue jays, owls and an eagle have also found places of honor in the Standers' home.
With the advent of modern tools such as power grinders and chisel machines, today's decoys have become more detailed, says Stander. Many of his own ducks have brought him ribbons in decoy shows in New Orleans and Maryland where the birds are judged for realism and their ability to float properly. Even though some ducks he has donated to decoy show auctions have earned some fair change _ up to $500 _ Stander says he is not one to make money off his craft. He carries a certain fondness for each of his birds. "I'm not the type of person that can sell them," he says. Still, Stander has been more than willing to present his birds as gifts. "Every time we go back to Louisiana for a show I have to bring more ducks than what I'm going to enter (into the contest)," he says with a chuckle, "All my friends and everybody in my family always says, "Well, did you bring me a duck?' They've all got just as many ducks in their homes as I do here."
Kitty says she has no problem living in a duck house where even the phone is a decoy that quacks rather than rings. That might be because one room in their home has been set aside for her hobby _ collecting porcelain dolls. While her husband whittles, Kitty can often be found at the kitchen table, sewing lacy outfits for her dolls.
The two met in the early 1940s in New York when Kitty, who was accompanying a friend on a date, picked Stander out. Stander was working as a salvage diver then, on the Normandy, a troop transporter that had sunk at Pier 88 in the Hudson River.
After 50 years of marriage the two are quick to share a laugh about their unusual meeting and ensuing courtship. When it came time to propose marriage, it seems Stander asked Kitty's mother first. "One day I got a call from my boss telling me that I was going to be flying home," says Kitty who was working at a local university, "I asked him, "Why?' and he said, "Because you're getting married.'
Shortly after their marriage, Stander took up painting, first brightening the shingles of houses, the George Washington Bridge, and high rises along Wall Street. Then he ventured into a more artistic aspect of his trade. As he had done as a youngster, he learned by watching. But this time it was experienced master craftsmen in the painting trade, and soon he was making a living as a steeplejack, painter and decorator of churches. "They wouldn't show you nothin'," he says, "So I fixed them. I just watched them and that's how I learned. Pretty soon I was the foreman."
Stander's work took him all over the country _ into ornate places of worship where he fine-tuned his talent for working with gold leaf, restoring elaborate murals, and doing fine stencil and scroll work. Often Kitty and their son Bill Jr. would accompany him. "It was a great way to see the country," says Kitty, "Sometimes his jobs would take 6 months."
One of Stander's prized work was at St. Henry's Church in Bayonne, N.J. There he restored the inside dome of the church, working on scaffolding 72 feet high. He also painted a 40-foot biblical mural for an Egypt Temple in New Jersey. "I was a member of the Masons there," he says, "and the temple needed painting, so I just did it. I just wanted to beautify the temple."
Stander considers his work as a restoration painter a "dying art." But like those who came before him he figures he'll be whittling away at his hobby for as long as he can. There's a decoy show coming up in August in New Orleans, he says, "And if the wife can make the trip, we'll be there."