Bill Koch and his wife, Mary Lou, with polo stars
Del Carroll, Buddy Combs, Russell Firestone and William Mayer.
By Ron Hayes
If the people of Gulf Stream remember William F. Koch Jr. as lovingly as he remembered the town, history will have been served.
At his death on June 17, Bill Koch had been Gulf Stream’s mayor for 46 of his 91 years. But he’d come here first as a boy in the late 1920s, and he remembered it well.
He remembered when Gulf Stream had caves where the St. Andrews apartments stand today, because he’d played in them.
He remembered “Cap,” the local beachcomber of his youth, and kept the broken neck of a green, hand-blown bottle Cap gave him, all his life.
Mayor Koch remembered Prohibition, when lanterns were hung from the town’s water tower to guide rumrunners through Boynton Inlet.
“He used to tell me he remembered when his grandfather would take him to Key West on the old Flagler railroad, and watching the coal sparks fall in the water,” his son, William Koch III, remembers. “He used to tell me how much he loved doing that.”
Mayor Koch was a Midwestern boy who grew to become a Florida man and made Palm Beach County a better place without making a lot of noise while he did it.
“He never asked for public recognition for anything he did,” said his daughter, Claudia Koch Burns. “He never sought out the limelight, or accolades for his public service. He just truly enjoyed helping build his little area of South Florida.”
William Frederick Koch Jr. was born Feb. 18, 1921, in Ann Arbor, Mich., the son of William Frederick and Luella Koch, and first saw Florida during winter visits to his grandfather’s Delray Beach home.
At Ann Arbor High School, he was a freestyle swimmer who made the Olympic trials. In Delray Beach, he was a lifeguard.
He enrolled in Rollins College, then left to serve in World War II. As a bombardier in the U.S. Army Air Corps, he flew in a squadron of B-17s on D-Day. His plane had a painting of the actress Lana Turner on the side, and its mission was to destroy railroad targets in Nazi-occupied France. Looking down, Bombardier Koch remembered what he saw.
“The trees were covered with what looked like giant white flowers,” he told his son. “But they weren’t. They were the parachutes of our guys who had been shot and just left hanging there.”
After the war, he returned to college, earned a degree in business, and met his wife. Bill and Mary Lou Koch — whom everyone knows as Freddie — celebrated their 64th anniversary on May 31.
In 1956, he opened a realty office in Delray Beach, and when he complained about the mosquitoes tormenting Gulf Stream’s polo field, the town gave him $150 and named him mosquito commissioner.
He sprayed twice a week and joined the commission. The mosquitoes stayed, he remembered, and he left to serve on the county’s planning board.
Ten years later he returned, was appointed mayor, and stayed mayor through 15 terms, for the next 46 years.
Rita Taylor, the town clerk, has known him since the early 1970s.
“He was always here before the Town Hall opened so we had an opportunity to discuss business,” she remembers. “Many people probably didn’t see the side of him I saw. He could be gruff, but to me he was a very kind gentleman. He had a lot of empathy for mankind.”
When state environmentalists declared Australian pines a non-native species and ordered them destroyed, Mayor Koch led the fight to have State Road A1A through town declared a historic highway. The trees are still there.
After checking in at the Town Hall each morning, he drove on to the real estate office.
“He was really amazing,” remembers Muriel Mowry, the office manager for 11 years. “He just had so much energy for his age. He came in every single day and would go out to lunch with the guys and his friends.”
He favored the Fifth Avenue Grill and La Cigale.
“We always had to flip for lunch,” remembers George Elmore, a friend for 30 years. “Of course, when he’d lose, he’d grumble, and when somebody else lost he’d tease them a little. Talking to him, he was gruff and outspoken, but he was a very caring man.”
Another lunch pal was Joel Strawn, his personal attorney since 1966.
“You never needed to worry about what was on his mind, because if you asked him, he would flat-out tell you,” Strawn remembers. “He was forceful and honest, but with a great sense of humor.”
In his time, Mayor Koch served on the boards of Episcopal churches; WPBT-2, the public television station; and SunTrust bank.
In the mid-1950s, he was among a group of residents who decided Good Samaritan Hospital in West Palm Beach was too far away. Four years later, Bethesda Memorial Hospital opened in Boynton Beach.
“He was involved from day one and stayed on as a board member,” says Roger Kirk, the hospital’s current president and CEO. “We were always a little better prepared when we knew we were going to face Mr. Koch, because we knew he would ask the tough questions. But we grew to love and respect him.”
After his death, Mayor Koch’s daughter was asked if he had any hobbies. She had to think for a moment.
“If he had a hobby,” Claudia Koch Burns said at last, “I guess you’d have to say it was community service.”
In addition to his wife, son and daughter, he leaves a daughter-in-law, Laura, of Gulf Stream; a son-in-law, Scott Burns; a grandson, Scott Frederick Burns, and a granddaughter, Lauren Christine Burns, all of Phoenix, Ariz.
The family suggests that donations be made to Bethesda Hospital Foundation, 2815 S. Seacrest Blvd., Boynton Beach, FL 33435.
In 1929, when Bill Koch was a little boy playing in Gulf Stream’s caves, the town had 16 registered voters.
Today, there are 650.
In 1929, the town’s total assessed value was $111,260.
Today, it’s $652 million.
When Bethesda Memorial Hospital opened in 1959, it had 32 doctors and 70 beds.
Today, there are 650 doctors on staff and 450 beds.
In his 91 years, Mayor Bill Koch saw Gulf Stream grow and change, and change again, from hidden caves to dazzling mansions. Some of the changes he championed, and some he opposed, but he always worked for what he thought best for his town.
And for that, he should be remembered.