The Last Word: Bill VanderWyden - My Life with Birds


William P. VanderWyden III lives a blessed life. He has passion: in his shepherding of Miami Law students as assistant dean of professionalism, in his work in his church, with his family, in his travels, in music, and in engaging in political discourse. Even looking from the wrong end of the telescope, his passage makes perfect sense. 

The Miami native’s childhood is a sort of Moonrise Kingdom version. In 1936, his grandparents built Parrot Jungle and Gardens, originally 40 acres of undomesticated hardwood hammock and cypress slough at the corner of Killian Drive and Red Road. Most of the family was involved in running the popular tourist attraction (once a nudist camp), and young VanderWyden grew up on the property, amid a backdrop of pink flamingos and high wire performing parrots.

Besides living in a cultural and ecological treasure, VanderWyden, and his three younger brothers, wandered both on and off property “getting into trouble,” riding bicycles all over Miami, exploring Matheson Hammock and the wildlands around Tahiti Beach (now Cocoplum). 

As a fourth grader, VanderWyden was a guest on “I’ve Got a Secret,” a 1950s and 1960s weekly game show. His “secret” was that the sulphur-crested cockatoo he was holding, named Butch, had kissed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill on his bald head during a visit to the park soon after World War II. 

Pinky, a salmon-crested cockatoo, was one of the several birds that young VanderWyden carried to the Florida exhibit at the World’s Fair in 1964 in New York. Pinky was (and still is!) a fair favorite as she rode a tiny bicycle across a high wire that ran from one end of the pavilion to the other during the multiple shows each day. 

Boating was a beloved family activity, even though his father had the ability to run aground in almost any part of Biscayne Bay as he didn’t believe in consulting navigational charts. They water skied and camped on Florida’s Ragged Keys.

As if his home life weren’t interesting enough, VanderWyden was also a Boy Scout and stayed with scouting, achieving Eagle Scout status. He commonly went on 25- and 50-mile hikes and camping trips with his scout troop. 

He and his brothers were part of the inaugural class at Epiphany Catholic School, less than two miles north of the VanderWyden home in the gardens. He still visits the church every morning before arriving at Miami Law by 7 a.m.

After attending the parish school, he breezed through Palmetto High School and on to Gainesville for his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. At the University of Florida, the ever-curious VanderWyden indulged in an academic tasting menu—studying business and music, history and accounting, economics and political science. 

“I never imagined as a boy growing up down the street in a world filled with birds and tourists and adventure, that I would wind up four miles north,” says VanderWyden, “but it is every bit as interesting.” 

His interest in actively engaging in politics fell silent with the assassination of Robert Kennedy, for whom VanderWyden was campaigning, but music, history, and politics continued to stoke the slow burn toward law. 

“Constitutional law issues attract me,” he says, “especially as they relate to civil rights, voting rights, and equal protection.”

He applied to law school during his senior year, and was accepted, but deferred. Instead, he chose to teach history, math, and music for three years on a military base in Germany, traveling the continent at every opportunity.

“Ironically, I was very much against the Vietnam War,” he says, “but I gained a great appreciation for what those serving in the military do. These guys are our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. They deserve our support and respect as they do their jobs.” 

When he returned to Miami, he enjoyed teaching so much that he devoted most of the next decade to Miami-Dade County Schools. “I found it very rewarding,” VanderWyden says. “But, finally, I went to law school; it had been in my mind for so long.”

For the next three years, VanderWyden taught by day, attending evening law classes, and studying, and helping his wife, Susan, rear their two daughters in between. In 1987, then-Dean of Students Jeannette Hausler convinced VanderWyden to join the administration as the assistant dean of Students. Now 30 years and thousands of students later, he is still happy with his decision. He loves his work with Miami Law’s aspiring attorneys and with the alumni they become.