Thunderbird Lodge is teeming with activity as construction workers are bustling around, gardeners are tending to the foliage, the chefs are cooking up breakfast and Eddie Bauer is hosting a photo shoot for its fall catalog.
In the midst of it all is Bill Watson, looking dapper in his Eddie Bauer attire with Calliegh, the 10-year-old Thunder pup by his side. As one of Lake Tahoe’s top historians, Thunderbird’s chief executive and curator has an interesting past that brought him to watch over George Whittell Jr.’s famed estate.
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He tries to live by his grandfather’s motto, “We are only here for two reasons: to have fun and leave a place better than you found it.” Throughout the years, he’s done that — judging from the impact he made in the gaming industry and now in preserving Thunderbird Lodge.
“Thunderbird is truly becoming Lake Tahoe’s art and history museum. -Bill Watson
Watson’s father was in technology for NASA and later Raytheon. While with NASA, his dad developed systems for the Apollo missions. He realized that they built enough parts to put 36 missions on the moon and predicted that the bottom would drop out in the aerospace industry. He eventually left the aerospace industry in 1968, relocated the family to Puerto Rico and started building computer systems for the gaming industry. Although his father was a genius at building and fixing computers, he didn’t know how to program them.
Bill Jr., at age 12, also took up an interest in computers and learned how to program them. While in his early teens, Bill received his first paycheck from Centronics, a pioneer in casino gaming technology, including computer systems and electronic slot machines. The family moved to Las Vegas while Bill Jr. was in high school where Bill continued to work in the casino business. He stayed in the gaming industry for the next 30 years.
As he got older, Bill Jr. became tired of the heat and the traffic and considered moving to Colorado when he was offered the job at IGT in Reno. Its proximity to the mountains and Lake Tahoe sold him.
Being at the inception of IGT allowed Bill to work in every facet of the gaming industry. He started his own business inventing and managing the Players Club card technology, a loyalty program that many casinos offer to guests so that they can receive rewards every time they gamble.
He eventually sold it to Bally Technologies and retired in 2003. Bill worked a stint as a political consultant for both the Democratic and Republican parties in 2004 and then joined a National Geographic research team helping photographers on a voyage through the South Pacific.
“I would go out with unexposed rolls of film and full cans of beer and come back with exposed rolls and empty cans,” he says.
As well as acting as the photographers’ first mate, Bill also started pitching his own story ideas to the magazine. He suggested covering the possibility of wildfire in Lake Tahoe, but was redirected into spending a 90-day stint at the Thunderbird Lodge, a Lake Tahoe historical site that at the time was at risk of being demolished. In fact, Bill found that the famed estate was generally falling apart.
“My goal was to pack it up and tear it down,” Bill says.
Instead, Bill felt he had to do whatever it took to restore and revive the landmark. He tirelessly led the charge in raising $10 million to settle the debt mortgage. Almost 10 years later, the Thunderbird Lodge is thriving thanks to the generosity of its few major donors.
“Thunderbird is truly becoming Lake Tahoe’s art and history museum,” Bill says. “There are a lot of facets to the Thunderbird Lodge and people have huge misconceptions about what the Thunderbird is.”
Because protection and preservation of the property is paramount and the estate is regarded as a cultural resource, people can only access the property through public tours and educational events.
“This is a window into the past that needs to be cared for, otherwise you lose sight into what’s happened, so as to prepare for the future,” Bill says.
He emphasizes that the Thunderbird Lodge accepts financial support at all levels in order to keep George Whittell’s legacy and integral part of Lake Tahoe history alive.
Public tours are available by land, boat or kayak on Tuesdays through Saturdays until through mid-October.
To make a donation or learn more about Thunderbird Lodge, visit thunderbirdtahoe.org.