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Bill joined the Army Air Force in 1942 and trained as a fighter pilot, but the war ended before he saw combat duty. After the war he took over the management of his family's cotton plantation near Webb, Mississippi. He married Erie Elizabeth Bobo in 1947, and their daughter and only child, Erie, was born in 1949.
When Bill returned home to the Mississippi Delta, he found farmworkers living in exceedingly poor conditions. Sharecroppers were often treated badly by landowners. Bill fired the farm's white overseer and promoted a black mechanic who worked as farm manager for 30 years until his retirement. Always searching for a better way to farm, Bill introduced the "skip-row" planting pattern to the Mississippi Delta, experimented with using geese to weed his crops and collaborated with seed developers to field-test new varieties. In 1964 Bill attended the Advanced Management Program at Harvard Business School, a program for high-level executives in leadership and management skills. The only cotton farmer in his class, he made life-long friends from all over the world.
During the 1960's and beyond, Bill and Betty were active in the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, and Bill served on the first bi-racial delegation to the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968.
Bill's progressive attitude towards workers and innovations in farming practices earned him widespread recognition. In 1983 he won the Cotton Grower Cotton Achievement Award for his contributions to the field, and his history as a farmer was featured in David Halberstam's best-selling book "The Fifties."
When not out in the field, Bill could invariably be found reading. He was a long-time member of the Wolf River Book Club in Memphis, which included Civil War historian Shelby Foote. Having written his undergraduate thesis on William Faulkner, Bill was a supporter of the annual Faulkner Festival sponsored by the University of Mississippi. For many years he hosted a lunch for festival participants on the "Delta tour," where he regaled guests with his knowledge of
literature and Southern history.
In 2008 Bill and Betty moved to University Retirement Community to be closer to their daughter and her husband. Despite moving from the place he'd called home for over 80 years, Bill made numerous friends, including many much younger friends. At 95, he inspired all who knew him with his erudition, mental clarity, sense of humor and gentle warmth. A lover of word-play, Bill never let a grandchild's birthday pass by without penning a limerick for the occasion.
Bill was predeceased by his sister, Patricia Pearson Meriwether, and by his parents, Oscar Wallace Pearson and Marion Pearson Dunn. He is survived by his wife of 70 years, Betty Bobo Pearson; his daughter, Erie Pearson Vitiello and her husband Michael Vitiello; his granddaughter, Elizabeth Vitiello and her wife Janelle Ruley; and his grandson, James Vitiello. Other survivors include nieces Betty Bobo Adkins and her husband Marty and Charlotte M. Wrather and her husband Chris; and nephews Bob Bobo III and his wife Candy, Kirk Bobo and his wife Anne Craig, Jack Bobo and his wife Mary Martha, and Joel Bobo and his wife Leslie.
A memorial service for Bill will be held at a later date. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to Yolo Hospice, P.O. Box 1014, Davis, CA 95617 or to the Southern Poverty Law Center, 400 Washington Avenue, Montgomery, AL 36104.
A Thousand Words: In Memory of William Pearson By Larry Herzog I first met Bill Pearson in January, 1972, on a quiet street lined with tropical foliage, on the outskirts of Cuernavaca, Mexico. I was bleary eyed, having literally gotten off a flight from New York City, and then a bus from Mexico City, and was looking for a place to live, while I began my semester abroad at Ivan Illich's CIDOC Institute (Intercultural Documentation Center), the combined language school and gathering of intellectuals that had been formed a few years before. When the taxi dropped me (and another New York City student companion) at a red- tiled roof mansion on the edge of Rancho Tetela, in the somewhat sparsely settled northeastern outskirts of 1970's Cuernavaca, I was looking for the 'seora' of the household, who was renting a small cottage on the side of the property. But, it was Bill (and a friend of his from Mississippi) who immediately greeted us from the outdoor terrace in the cottage he was renting at the front of the property. Bill's charm and soaring, gracious southern hospitality swept over us like a breath of cool air... we quickly realized we were fellow students about to study at the nearby CIDOC school where he was currently enrolled. My friend Lenore and I were immediately invited to sit on the shaded patio and sip cocktails while Bill, with his rhythmic, twangy Mississippi delta accent made us feel welcome. Within minutes, I found myself mentally discarding any stereotypes I might have had about southerners from Mississippi... Bill immediately impressed me as a kind, intellectually gifted, self-taught, articulate, southern gentleman who liked to sip cocktails as much as he enjoyed conversing on topics ranging from William Faulkner to Latin American politics, from meteorology, to modern cotton farming. He seemed more like a college professor than a cotton farmer. Little did I realize that this was one of those transcendental moments... the beginning of a lifelong friendship that would last for the next 45 years. It has been a great privilege to share moments with Bill (and Betty) over these many decades since we met in the "City of Eternal Spring", Cuernavaca, Mexico. Back then in winter of 1972, once Bill's charismatic wife Betty arrived, shortly after we met on that day in January, a small group of us undergraduate students forged a bond with the couple, who, though they were probably the same age as our parents, were profoundly youthful in spirit and intellect and in their sense of adventure, which we all came to appreciate as we spent time together. Over those months in the winter of 1972a" taking language classes up on the quaint hilltop estate of CIDOC, sitting around over coffee and pastries, sharing plates of Mama Gordita's tacos or smashed potatoes drowned with spicy chicken in downtown Cuernavaca, or side trips to Veracruz, Puebla, Acapulco, or Tepoztlna"we formed a bond that endures to this day. It was truly one of the great winters of my young life, back then, wandering the grounds of CIDOC, conversing and learning Spanish, dipping into Mexican culture, all of this interspersed with the friendly, southern chirpy sound of Betty's "hola" or Bill's folksy and charming conversation, as he thought through a puzzling aspect of our daily existence in Mexican life. When Bill and Betty had to return to Mississippi in late spring to begin cotton harvesting, they threw a giant goodbye party, with live music and great food; it brought together a huge crowd of Mexican teachers and visiting students, all of whom had grown to love this charming and very clever southern couple. Our friendship had been forged as Americans navigating the exotic and sometimes confusing culture of 1970's Mexico. Bill and Betty's warmth and southern charm, combined with worldliness and intellectual curiosity, was unlike anything I had known up to that point at age 20. I was smitten, and excited to imagine our friendship going. And so it did. Returning home to my upstate New York university in late May of 1972, I decided to travel by car with a friend (Andy) from Pennsylvania, across northern Mexico and into the Texas borderlands. We soon found our way to Rainbow Plantation, a welcome site to young students living on a modest budget. Suddenly we were staying in this lovely, modern ranch complex, in a spacious, light-filled guest-wing, with bright cedar walls. The first morning, the family cook, "Puddin," who seemed more like an aunt, served a fine southern breakfast. For dinner that night, we were treated to Puddin's famous fried chicken. I walked in awe around this home, its library filled from floor to ceiling with books, film tapes, art works. Outside, Betty was a master gardener, and her flowers and plants sprawled around us in well-organized patterns. Further out in the fields, I was introduced to Bill's worlda"the sprawling, many-thousand acre cotton plantation-- and witnessed, first hand, how Bill combined intuition, science and home-grown wisdom to be one of the most respected cotton farmers on the delta. And so it went, as, over the years, I crossed the great nation by car, leaving my east coast origins and exploring beyond... and always, there were stops in Mississippi, in the town of Webb, and on Rainbow Plantation, to share good times with Bill and Betty. Bill was a humble man, full of wisdom, but never one to brag about it. He was a walking encyclopedia of southern history, ahead of his time, a man who treated his workers with dignity, and considered them a part of his extended family. Bill exuded good will, had an inherent trust in the goodness of people, and always seemed to look for the larger meaning of things, viewing them in the light of history, or culture, or nature, or humankind. He was a complement to the equally amazing woman he married, Betty. Over the many decades of knowing Bill and Betty, there was a timeless quality to our friendship, as if we were never far from those first moments in Cuernavaca. I watched them age gracefully and intelligently, choosing the right moments to give up the cotton farming life, move into the town of Sumner for a time, and later out to California to be with Erie and Michael. I visited them in Sumner too, and Betty shared stories about the 1950's racial politics, while Bill continued to dabble in farming, while also keeping his foot in the literary circles of southern writers who shared his origins. I visited them in Davis, California, and they were still the same old "Bill and Betty," still curious, gracious, warm. I have always and will always feel uplifted in the presence of Bill and Betty, or simply thinking of them; each of them made my world a better place, not only in their conversations and interest in me personally, but in the example they set, tied to the land and culture of their homeland, yet able to embrace the larger goal of creating a better and more equitable planet. Their generosity of spirit, their intellectual curiosity, Bill's passion for food, language, science, art, spirits, literature and film were an inspiration, and Betty was his equal every step of the way. In all the visits, the rides around the Rainbow Plantation or through the towns of the surrounding Delta region, in conversations, in just being around Bill, I came away with a visceral sense of the southern United States unlike what I might have imagined. This southern way of thinking, passion for its land and history, and tradition, then filtered through a progressive and generous spirit, made the journey with Bill one that I will never, ever forget. Larry Herzog San Diego, California August 7, 2017.
Lawrence A. Herzog Aug 7 2017 12:00 AM
Dear Family and Friends -- I am one of the young people Erie mentioned in her beautiful obituary of her father. It was 1972, my final year of college. A group of us were taking Spanish classes and learning the unconventional ideas of Ivan Illich at CIDOC near Cuernavaca, Mexico. On the weekends we would tour off to various locations in Mexico. Bill and Betty were there with us. They embraced us young people as fellow adventurers. In an era when generational differences could be profound, Bill and Betty easily bridged the 25 year age gap. Together we were "eyes wide open" exploring a different culture and new ideas. This experience inspired me and positively influence my life in many ways. Thank you Bill and thank you Betty. - - Love, Mark
Mark Hirschmann Jul 29 2017 12:00 AM
We love Bill and will cherish his memory. It was a privilege to know him. Reading this beautiful bio, we find we wish we had asked him more questions and had time for more stories. Sending lots of love especially to Betty and Erie. Love, Marisa and Tom
Marisa Vitiello Jul 28 2017 12:00 AM