William (Bill) Thomas Larkins
March 22, 1922- September 9, 2021
William Thomas Larkins was born on March 22, 1922, in Bakersfield, California, to Genevieve Erb Larkins and Thomas Henry Larkins. His father was the superintendent of the Stauffer Oil Company and the family lived in a small wooden house surrounded by oil derricks. In 1929, the family moved to the Rockridge neighborhood in Oakland, California. Reading the “Flying Aces” and “War Birds” dime novels in the early 1930’s brought about a lifelong interest in models, airplanes and flying. At the age of 12, he got a Kodak Brownie box camera and started visiting Bay Area airports to take as many photographs as he could. By the age of 14, he had already taken and cataloged photos of 145 different planes. He enjoyed telling of his father’s horror at the FBI appearing on his doorstep investigating his experimental aircraft photography. This was the start of what would become a large and extensively documented collection of aviation negatives and photographs.
After graduation from University High School, Bill enrolled in the Civilian Pilot Training Program and learned to fly. He attended San Francisco City College and then the University of San Francisco, where he enrolled in the Reserve Officers Training Corps. Three months before graduation, his entire ROTC group was activated. Bill was assigned to the Army Air Corps and talked his way into the Army Air Force Photography School at Lowry Field in Denver. He became an instructor in aircraft recognition and publication editor at Army Air Force Headquarters stationed on Park Avenue, in New York City. At the end of the war, he served in the intelligence section of the Army Air Force Reserve and as Photographic Officer for the California National Guard. He returned home to California and finished his B.S. degree in English at the University of San Francisco.
Bill continued taking photos of planes at Bay Area airports, making frequent trips to Buchanan Field in Concord. There he met Clotilde (Tillie) Perez, who was selling surplus airplanes for the War Assets Administration. They were married on July 27, 1950, at Queen of All Saints Church in Concord and moved into the home they had watched being built in the new Fair Oaks subdivision in Pleasant Hill, which happened to be in the flight path of Sherman Field. This was the family home for 64 years, where their two daughters, Mary and Joan, remember knowing everyone in the neighborhood and sitting at the dining room table while their parents had lengthy discussions about aviation with their friends, as well as strong chemical smells associated with developing negatives and self-printed photos rinsed in the bathtub. His daughters have countless memories of driving the backroads of California while their parents searched for tiny landing strips and crop dusters. Bill lamented the advent of fenced airports and took satisfaction in getting a perfect shot by ignoring “Keep Out” and “Authorized Personnel Only” signs.
Bill began working as an audio-visual specialist and photographer at the University of California Berkeley School of Public Health in 1950. He continued working in administration at the School for thirty-one years. At the same time, he continued his interest in aviation history and photography. In 1956, Bill and close friends Chalmers Johnson and Willis Nye started the American Aviation Historical Society to “research and preserve the history of American aviation.” Bill served as secretary and editor of the AAHS Journal for the society’s first three years. His early interest in aviation history is shown by his membership numbers: No. 1 in AAHS; 17 in the Antique Airplane Association, 201 in Air Britain; 22 in the National Ryan Club; 28 in the North American Trainers Association.
During this time, Bill was working on his first book. The Ford Story: A Pictorial History of the Ford Tri-Motor 1927-1957. This was followed by US Marine Corps Aircraft 1914-1959 and then US Navy Aircraft 1921-1941. Later books included: US Navy Aircraft 1921-1941/US Marine Corps Aircraft 1914-1959, The Ford Tri-Motor 1926-1992, Battleship and Cruiser Aircraft of the United States Navy 1910-1949 and Surplus WWII U.S. Aircraft. Bill also collaborated with others on several publications. With Ronald T. Reuther, he wrote San Francisco Bay Area Aviation and Oakland Aviation; with Nick Veronico, Airliner Tech Series Volume 12: Convair Twins: Piston Convair-Liners Prop-Jet Turbo-Liners; with the Alameda Naval Air Museum, Alameda Naval Air Station. Tillie was a key supporter of Bill’s aviation history work and called each of Bill’s books her “book children.” Bill was an active contributor to the AAHS Journal, Air Classics and many other aviation history publications.
Bill was always willing to share his expertise, photographs, and documentation with his fellow aviation enthusiasts. He embraced the new world of computers and was excited about being able to email other aviation historians and photographers around the world and enjoyed seeing his photographs in books by fellow enthusiasts. He facilitated several online aviation discussion groups and shared thousands of his aircraft photographs online. A 2004 exhibit at the San Francisco Airport Museum, Arriving SFO: Photographs by William T. Larkins, showcased photographs of four decades of commercial aircraft that served San Francisco. In 2004, he received the International Society for Aviation Photography George Hall Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2006, he was honored with the Admiral Arthur W. Radford Award for Excellence in Naval Aviation History and Literature.
In addition to his aviation activities, Bill and his wife, Tillie, were very involved in their community. They were active members of the Fair Oaks Homeowners Association. They volunteered every Tuesday for 25 years in the photo department at the Contra Costa Historical Society. They also participated in water aerobics classes at the Pleasant Hill YMCA for 30 years, enjoying the group’s monthly birthday luncheons. They were founding members of both Christ the King and Most Precious Blood (now St. Francis of Assisi) parishes. Both Bill and Tillie were on the editorial staff of the volume commemorating the 50th Anniversary Celebration for Most Precious Blood/ St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church.
Bill was a loving husband, father, father-in-law, and grandfather. He graciously welcomed having his daughter Joan and her husband Robert living in the little house in his backyard for three months while they searched for a permanent job after graduating from college. Carrying on a long-standing practice, he made sure his grandson experienced his first airshow at the age of three months. Affectionately known as “Nina Pa” by his grandchildren, Tom and Anna, they remember that it always took longer than expected to reach a destination due to stops at multiple airports on trips with their grandparents. Bill enjoyed family dinners and going out to eat with family and friends. He had a definite sweet tooth; Anna became an expert at making tiramisu because it was her grandfather’s favorite dessert. For the last 17 months of his life he participated in a nightly video call with his daughters and family.
In 2014, Bill made the decision to move to Carlton Senior Living Downtown Pleasant Hill. He enjoyed his apartment overlooking the courtyard and always praised the staff for their care. They joked that they knew, without his asking, that he liked ice cream for dessert every evening.
Due to Covid-19, the family will hold a private funeral. A Celebration of Bill’s Life for family and friends will be held in March, which would have marked his 100th birthday.
Bill was preceded in death by his loving wife of 64 years, Clotilde Perez Larkins, his brother, John Henry Larkins and his infant grandson, Alexander Joseph Woelfel. He is survived by his daughters Mary (Joseph) Woelfel, of Lodi, CA, and Joan (Robert) Mather of Columbia, MD, and grandchildren Thomas (Ayesha) Woelfel of New York, NY, and Anna Marie Woelfel of San Francisco, CA.
Bill will be missed by family, friends, aviation photographers and historians, who will remember his friendship and mentorship. Memorial donations may be made to the Contra Costa Historical Society, the Society for Aviation History or to a charity of your choice.
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