Traverse City Record-Eagle

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May 10, 2013

Businessman who launched Indian-owned factory dies

TRAVERSE CITY - Long-time businessman William “Bill” Russell, who launched the region’s first Indian-owned manufacturing plant in 1975 and initially hired only fellow American Indians when no other company would, died at his home.

Russell, 77, died late Wednesday. He started and owned Nish-Nah-Bee Industries from 1975 to 1998. It employed 550 Indian and non-Indian workers at its peak in the mid-1980s. Nish-Nah-Bee means “original people.”

“He believed that for native people to flourish and get things accomplished, Indian people needed to get involved in business,” said John Bailey, of Honor, who served on the Michigan Indian Commission in the 1970s, and in the 1980s worked for the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

Friends and family described Russell as determined, hard-working, strong and gracious, an inspiring man who insisted on living life on his own terms right up to the end. He was diagnosed with bile duct cancer last June and was told he would die within three to four months.

“I prefer to dance with my opportunities, not my limitations,” he told George Antoine last fall when they discussed his memorial service.

Antoine, a long-time friend and Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians tribal council member, will officiate at Russell’s memorial service on May 15 at Reynolds-Jonkhoff Funeral Home. Visitation will be held at 2 p.m. and the service starts at 3 p.m.

“He was given a diagnosis, but it didn’t matter until a few days ago,” niece Jane Rohl said. “It wasn’t a death sentence. He lived every day of his life under his own rules.”

Russell stayed active, and got up and dressed each morning, even if he didn’t feel well. He ate healthy meals, exercised and spent time with friends. He also told his family he wanted his obituary to note he was a member of Alcoholics Anonymous and proud of his 31 years of sobriety. He attended his last meeting May 4.

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