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.”