Billy the ‘Hawk Man’ of Riverside Park Dies; Family Raising Money for a Bench Plaque in His Honor


Bill Healey in front of the Eleanor Roosevelt statue. Photograph by Julie Lam.

Bill Healey, who lived on West 76th Street, died in January, leaving a void in the park next to where he lived. Healey was a constant presence in Riverside Park — a lover of birds and a helper who befriended neighbors and animals.

He was known to many as Billy the Hawk Man or Billy the Bird Man. He would often ride his bike in the park and talk to people about whatever bird he had seen recently — often red-tailed hawks, according to Joy Bergmann, a West Side Rag reporter who interacted with him. Billy would check in on hawks around the neighborhood and track their well-being, calling the Parks Department if he noticed something out of whack. He would save feral cats and care for other animals too. When a homeless man died in the park in 2017, Billy named one of the baby hawks after him.

In recent months, Billy had taken on another task — placing masks on the statue of Eleanor Roosevelt on 72nd Street inside the park, and then replacing them after they were swiped. He would take his ladder down to the park to replace the masks, some of which were patriotic or covered in rainbow colors to support gay pride. Julie Lam, a writer for the New York Voice and the founder of Mask with Us Facebook Group, met Billy in June and said she was inspired by his dedication.

Billy held nothing back in our chat — how I quickly learned that Eleanor’s masks kept getting stolen, why he had to keep replacing them. Each time, he had to get his ladder from home. Wrapping a mask around the bronze head, almost 8 feet from the ground, also requires additional rubber bands. After ten times, Billy proudly said that he was getting better with it.

Tall, healthy and strong. That’s my first impression of Billy Healey. In this pandemic, the elderly have been universally portrayed as the vulnerable people. Expendable, if not for Gov Cuomo’s Matilda Law. Elderly New Yorkers were expected to stay at home at all costs. But Billy has shown the world otherwise.

Before he retired, Billy used to work for West Side Campaign Against Hunger, according to Lam. He also managed the food pantry at the St. Andrew, St. Paul Church.

Billy’s family now wants to honor him by placing a plaque on a bench where he liked to sit in the park around 74th Street. They’re trying to raise $8,000 through a GoFundMe campaign.

“We imagine the birds, squirrels, and hawks perching on Billy’s bench far into the future and somehow knowing that a man who fiercely loved all living things, once sat there, held court with anyone willing to talk with him, and held out hope for the good of humanity in his heart,” they wrote.

Billy apparently had a special connection to Eleanor Roosevelt, according to Lam.

He said he met Eleanor in person when his mom took him to attend a women’s rally in 1957. Though Billy was only 9 years old, he still has vivid memories of the first lady. Apparently, Eleanor has kissed Billy on his cheek.

“What a handsome boy! She called me.”

NEWS, OUTDOORS | 28 comments | permalink

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    1. susan says:

      This is an uplifting story & a lovely picture — so good of him, & of Eleanor too.

    2. Harriette Natkins says:

      As a Riverside Park Tender from 74th to 79th streets for many years, I and my partners knew Billy well and interacted with him regularly. He always kept us in the loop about how each season’s Hawk families were doing, what he wanted brought to the Conservancy or Park Dep’t Staff attention and lots of interesting stories.

      My sympathy extends to his family. We will sadly miss his warm smiles, updates and chats.

    3. catherine l goldbas says:

      I have fond memories Of talking with Billy about all the beautiful birds on the upper West side especially the Hawks. He will be deeply missed.

    4. Neighbor says:

      RIP to such a kind and lovely man.

    5. Ulrike Klopfer says:

      Oh dear, I am so sorry to hear that. I have missed him these last many weeks. We frequently talked near Eleanor (I had met her at the University of Michigan) and he had told me about his meeting her in RI. But he also told me about the eviction notice he and his wife had received.
      I will be glad to donate toward a park bench for him.

    6. Carol Ardman says:

      Thank you for this memory of Billy Healy. We knew each other by sight and nodded and said hello for many years. He was a great man.

    7. Gretchen says:

      Thank you for posting this well-deserved tribute to our dear friend Billy. He is sorely missed by his friends — human, feathered and furry. There’s an emptiness in the park where he used to tend to the wildlife, take care of Eleanor and cheer us up on a daily basis. He can now soar with the red-tailed falcons.

      • Monique and Karin says:

        We are so grateful to you all for your stories and beautiful memories of our Billy… father, husband and loving grandpa… Thank you for helping keep his memory alive and thank you for your donations, however large or small to make sure his presence in the park he so loved will never be forgotten. We love you all! Monique (daughter) and Karin (wife)

        • kaylord says:

          Deepest condolences to you and all of your family. I was wondering how his wife was doing so I’m happy you commented here. For every person who comments, there are hundreds more who’s lives he touched. Riverside won’t be the same without Billy on his bike, Billy on the bench and Billy sharing bird sightings and knowledge.

        • UWSEd says:

          I recently lost my husband of nearly 40 years, so I’m well aware that little I write will ease your pain. Nevertheless, I thank you for the opportunity to lend my support to Billy’s memory and his bench. One day, one hour at a time.

        • Pam says:

          Karin and Monique, I am so sorry to hear about Billy. We watched hawks together for many years. I will always remember his stories,his devotion to the hawks, his warm personality, and the great love he had for his family.

      • J says:

        So sad to hear this news. I knew he was ill, but hoped he would have more time. Billy’s presence will be sorely
        missed and some of the color of the neighborhood has faded.

    8. LP_NYC says:

      RIP Billy. I will miss seeing you in person, but your spirit lives on in Riverside Park. So many stories you shared over the years. Over many conversations about his very interesting life…he also told me that he was a driving force behind establishing the 72nd St dog run.

    9. kaylord says:

      Saying hi to Billy and getting a hawk update from him was one of the bright spots of our daily dog walk in Riverside. He’ll be missed. RIP Billy.

    10. Martin Cahill says:

      I knew Billy well, we shared bird news every time we met. My Daughter Maisie 6 years old loved meeting and talking to Billy. He was great with kids and always let her feed the squirrels:-).

      RIP Billy my friend.

    11. Nelson says:

      What a nice tribute of a lovely neighbor I wish I’d known. I will think of him on my next run in the Park & when I see a soaring hawk! Condolences to his loving family and friends.

    12. Susan says:

      You will be so missed Billy . The park will never be the same without your smile and kindness to all.

    13. I often saw Billy in the Park and sometimes we chatted about the hawks. But I never knew much about him and am so sad to hear about his death. But I am also grateful to learn more about him and would like to contribute towards the bench. Please advise the best way to do that – thanks.

    14. Erik Kolbell says:

      Take wing, Bill, and have a gentle landing…

    15. lynn says:

      I met Billy shortly after I moved to the UWS. I was looking for the steps to Riverside Park and he showed me the way and gave me an ‘official’ greeting. I wasn’t there very often but I will miss seeing him. My condolences to his family and friends.

    16. Steffie Wilson says:

      I will miss our bench chats so much!
      My condolences to Karin and the family.

    17. Ginger LaBella says:

      Billy sounds like a very special soul. I’m happy to contribute to his park bench plaque.

    18. Lydia says:

      What a special man!! Condolences to his family. We need more people like Billy in this world!

      • karol stonger says:

        Who will now help protect and report on the parents, the eggs, the fledglings–and who will chronicle the milestones of survival for another year or the untimely demise in a fall from the nest or from the perils of rat poison or the West Side Highway. RIP

    19. Marianne says:

      Thank you to the WSR and the wonderful comments about Billy. Billy was my friend and next door neighbor. Always with a kind smile on his face, a ride his bicycle past me a few weeks ago with a “hey pretty lady”. I would see him on his bench at riverside park and 74th (can’t wait to see his plaque on the bench) having a smoke, feeding the birds and squirrels and telling me about the generations of his hawk family (he had a name for each bird and could tell them apart!) and his human family.
      One conversation 18 months ago will forever be engraved in my heart and I’ll share it here: we talked about life and death and asked if he was afraid of dying ( he shared he had been diagnosed with cancer) he told me with his clear blue eyes shining: “ I’m not afraid of death, there is no death”. He went on to tell me that decades ago he met a 12-year old enlightened Indian boy who “showed him universes”. Billy knew that we are all connected and part of the same human soul. Bless him and my condolences to his wife who is disabled and his beautiful step daughter and grandchildren

    20. Julie Lam says:

      On behalf of Billy’s family, I want to thank you for this wonderful article about Billy and all the help in raising the needed fund for the bench plaque. Billy’s determination inspired me to start a social media platform for mask awareness. Today, the platform is reaching people all over the country. The readership of our platform exceeds 15,000 a month.

      Like Billy, I cannot sit there and do nothing. I am an amateur photographer, a writer, a mom…so I give what I can in this battle. It’s a long story.

      B.T.W. I took the picture of Billy.

      • Gretchen says:

        Great photo, Julie! You really captured his spirit and exuberance. Thank you. I’m sure that the majestic red-tailed falcon is his spirit animal.

    21. Judy Katz says:

      I never had the great honor and privilege to meet this incredible man, but I am delighted at this grassroots effort to immortalize his bench. The birds have lost a great friend and advocate, and we have lost someone who affirms our faith in the essential good of humanity—or at least how it shows up in the best of us.