City Life

A passion for parks

Bill Kessler visited all the U.S. national parks

When Bill Kessler was 8 years old, his dad went to Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas in search of relief for sore joints. Bill went along.
It was a historic moment—the beginning of a lifelong quest—but the Chicago boy didn’t know it. “On my first visit to a national park,” Kessler says, “I was sitting in a hot spring with a bunch of old men with arthritis.” Last fall, Kessler, 73 and semiretired from the real estate business in Madison, took a trip with his wife to Hawaii and then American Samoa in the South Pacific. 
With that trip, Kessler checked off the last two of 59 national parks in the U.S. He has visited them all, and he made a point of getting to the last two in the year the National Park Service turned 100. 
Kessler has also visited all the Major League Baseball parks. While his many Madison friends know him as amiable, easygoing and humorous, there is an aspect of Kessler’s personality that tends toward the obsessive.
As a boy in Chicago, Kessler memorized the populations of the 100 largest American cities. “A little nerdy,” he says, laughing. “That leads to lists and doing stuff.”
Kessler first lived in the area in the early 1960s, when he was studying Soviet history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, a curriculum that undoubtedly helped him land his first job, which was with an insurance company in Chicago.
Kessler spent a decade in insurance, making stops in St. Louis and Boston before returning to Madison in 1975. He had a marriage in his rearview mirror and two kids to raise.
Kessler got his real estate license, starting small—“out of my basement,” he says—but growing to the point in 1978 when he could buy a Century 21 franchise. He liked real estate, and operating a small business ran in his family. It became a successful career.
Along the way, he met his wife-to-be and, in 1997, married Judi, who accompanied him to many but not all the national parks. Early on, Bill also befriended a young attorney who helped him with a legal matter. They found they shared an enthusiasm for baseball and horse racing. Decades later, Bill and Madison Mayor Paul Soglin are still good friends—Soglin went along on some of the ballpark visits.
Bill visited all the ballparks before the national parks. He says it was about a decade ago—a time when he was looking at slowing down if not quite retiring from work—when he realized he had been to most of the major league stadiums.
“I grabbed Mike Kornemann”—another friend, and the current publisher of this magazine—“and he and I went to my last two, in Florida.”
Bill has favorites, of course. “I like ballparks that actually help the city and are immersed in the city.” He cites Pittsburgh’s PNC Park as perhaps the best. “If you’re sitting behind home plate, you can see the rivers converge and the gaslights on the bridges.”
He took a water taxi from Coronado Island to the ballpark in San Diego. In Seattle, from the top of the stadium, he could see Mount Rainier in one direction and Puget Sound in the other. Bill is not excited about Miller Park. “It does nothing for Milwaukee,” he says.
With all the baseball parks checked off, Bill in 2009 took stock of the list of 59 national parks. He’d visited 17. “I was looking for another challenge,” he says.
He and Judi visited Glacier National Park in Montana and were overwhelmed by the beauty. It remains their favorite. They visited during the last two days the lodge was open for the season and were almost alone. They went hiking, saw bears, and, after it snowed, beheld a double rainbow.
Judi wasn’t keen on Alaska, so Bill rounded up a friend from Seattle and headed north. There are eight national parks in Alaska. They drove the famous Haul Road from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay. “Four hundred miles of mud,” Bill says. “We did it in August and got caught in a blizzard.”
A particular favorite was Big Bend National Park in Texas. “Underrated,” Bill says. “The Rio Grande River, hot springs and mountains up to 6,500 feet.”
Bill’s last two—the National Park of American Samoa and the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park—were vastly different experiences. American Samoa was unremarkable, but the volcanoes were breathtaking. A boat ride at night takes you to where the lava flows into the sea.
Now Bill has his sights set on visiting half the world’s countries. By his estimation, there are 210—he’s at 71, and needs to get to 105. It would be unwise to bet against him.
When asked about his favorite spot in the world, Bill smiled. “Madison.” He isn’t kidding. His friends, family—including three grandchildren—are nearby. “My life in Madison has been wonderful,” he says.

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