For the last several years I've known I would someday have to write this posting. And there's no posting I'd rather write less.
Bill Acker died last month, on Sunday, August 23, 2015, due to complications from cancer. He was 62 years old.
Bill was one of the phone phreaks I profiled in Exploding The Phone. My book would be a shadow of its current self were it not for Bill. His enthusiasm for phone phreaking, his razor-sharp memory, his encyclopedic knowledge of the telephone network, and his willingness to spend hundreds of hours on the phone with me explaining it all - often multiple times - were some of the critical things that allowed me to write the book that I did. Over the course of those hundreds of hours, and in the years following, we became close friends.
(Photo by Glen Martin, Denver Post/Getty Images, 1981. That's Kyle, Bill's dog, at his feet.)
Bill spent 27 years at the phone company, 29 years married to his wife Lenora, and every waking minute devoted to learning new things about communications and computer technology. Bill loved learning about the network. Next to Lenora, I don't think there was anything he loved more.
Bill was born blind but was never particularly concerned about it. He recalled that his friend Evan Doorbell once said, "I don’t understand how you can go into a phone booth and use your blue box without knowing who's watching." Bill remembers thinking, "Well, yes, that's a valid point, but what choice do I have? You either do it or you don't..." Of course, we're talking about a blind guy who hitchhiked with his girlfriend from New York to California in 1973, which kind of puts things in perspective.
Bill felt ardently that phone phreaking made him a better telco employee. "I really believe that phone phreaking taught me how to troubleshoot," he said. "In my career with the phone company, being a phone phreak helped me so much. I was successful at Mountain Bell because I could think like a phone phreak. Phone phreaking is responsible for me having 28 years of good employment. I was determined to work for the phone company. I not only wanted to be a phone phreak, I wanted to be a telephone man, and I got to do it."
Back when he was a teenager, long before he worked for the phone company, telco employees had already learned what a source of knowledge he was: at the Forest Hills, Long Island central office they had a note posted that said, "If you have questions, call Bill Acker" and gave his phone number.
Bill loved the analog telephone network, but not to the exclusion of new technologies: he embraced computers, networking, and VOIP. He was responsible for maintaining the Redhat and Fedora "speakup" modifications that provide Linux voice accessibility for blind or vision-impaired people. As their manifesto puts it, "Because equal access to all system functions is a blind computer user's right, from bootup to shutdown!" Bill constantly agitated for open-source software over proprietary systems and advocated for IPv6.
Bill had been sick with cancer for the last couple of years. In August 2013 when his cancer had metastasized to his liver and he was admitted to the hospital we talked on the phone. At the time, things looked fairly grim. But Bill was always an optimist - and an athiest. When others would have asked for prayers, Bill instead reminded me of a something my friend Jessi once said: "Would you mind sending some of those Western-medicine-is-efficacious thoughts my way?"
Western medicine was indeed efficacious and, thanks to Bill's tenacious oncologist and some innovative chemotherapy, Bill lived to hack another day. But by January 2015 he was once again in the hospital and not doing well. He mentioned to me that a friend of his asked him on the phone one day, "Bill, how am I going to know when you're gone?"
Bill replied, "Look for a notice on the Exploding The Phone web site. Phil will post something."
This is that posting, and it sucks to have written it.
Have phone, my friend. The dialtone is fainter for your absence.
P.S., The audio of his in-person and telephonic memorial service can be found at the Secular Hub web site.