GAIA mourns the loss of a remarkable man: Bill Rankin, 1941-2022

Bill with Jessie

By:

Published On:

November 9, 2023

The remarkable life of Rev. Dr. William Rankin – known by nearly everyone simply as “Bill” – came to a peaceful end at age 80 on July 22, 2022.   He leaves behind an adoring family, scores of friends and admirers, and many, many thousands of grateful beneficiaries of his fierce kindness and compassion.

In 2000, with UCSF neurosurgeon Dr. Charles Wilson, Bill co-founded GAIA – now GAIA Global Health – to bring basic health care to rural villages in Malawi during the HIV/AIDS pandemic. When he retired as the organization’s first president and CEO in November 2011, GAIA had already left its mark: teaching disease prevention, women’s empowerment, orphan-care and home-based care interventions in over 180 rural villages; delivering micro-loans to over 2400 impoverished rural women; deploying fully staffed and stocked mobile health clinics to remote areas providing more than 2.5 million patient visits since 2008; and enabling more than 700 young women and men to attend Malawi’s nursing colleges on scholarship who now serve rural hospitals and clinics throughout the country.  

It was initially Bill and Charlie’s vision that GAIA would connect generous people in the United States with AIDS-related need in Africa by raising funds for the delivery of an effective anti-HIV drug in sub-Saharan Africa. Upon reflection, however, the focus of GAIA’s efforts became Malawi, the warm heart of Africa, primarily because the country was deemed “invisible” in Bill’s view, lacking the attention it warranted as one of the epidemic’s HIV hotspots.

While waiting to supply medications in Malawi, Bill began attending, then conducting, meetings of Muslim and Christian religious leaders aimed at educating them concerning HIV/AIDS and strategies of how to address it. Soon community-based activities with small grants from GAIA were being generated in many villages. In time an in-country staff was established that has grown in size and productivity into GAIA Malawi, a strong and vital entity of 130 local staff under the capable leadership of Joyce Jere. GAIA US and GAIA Malawi have made an enormous difference, not just with respect to HIV/AIDS, but now as to many other health care issues at the far end of the road. Bill’s vision of bringing health to the rural poor in Malawi is being fulfilled.  

Bill was born on October 10, 1941 and grew up near Syracuse, New York. In 1963 he received an undergraduate degree from Duke University. Then in 1966 he graduated from the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church Diocese of Central New York. All his life, he fought to awaken others to the worldwide suffering of the poor and teach ways of working to alleviate poverty and injustice. With a great heart, crystalline intelligence, thirst for truth, and a dry sense of humor, he had a gift for mobilizing many to give generously of their time and money in support of great causes, including GAIA. He worked tirelessly for civil rights through the sixties and seventies and in the late seventies received a master’s degree in public policy sciences and a Ph.D. in ethics, both from Duke.

His worldwide academic honors are numerous, but it is rather his life’s work serving the poor and marginalized for which he would like to be remembered. Still, it bears mention that he was named a Distinguished Alumnus of the Episcopal Divinity School in 2014, and jointly with wife Sally, received the 2015 Duke University Award for Global Leadership and Service. He was a member of many boards and advisory committees, an invited speaker at many conferences, and the author of five books on issues of peace and justice, including Countdown to Disaster pertaining to the arms race.

Bill is survived by his beloved wife of 57 years, Sally Heller Rankin, his daughter Amy Rankin-Williams and son-in-law Christopher Rankin-Williams of Kentfield, his son Robert Gordon Rankin and daughter-in-law Jennifer Smith Rankin of Portland, grandchildren, Aristéa and Aidan Rankin-Williams of Kentfield, as well as his sisters Sue Hodge of Roanoke, Virginia, and Carol Roellich of Tekoa, Washington.


A celebration of Bill’s life will take place on Saturday, September 24 at St. John’s Church in Ross, CA at 11 am.  All are welcome.

This obituary was prepared by dear friend Ivan Weinberg, an original GAIA Board member, and its second Board Chair.  Ivan drew from a larger obit, drafted by Bill before his death, which can be read here.

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Gifts in support of Bill’s vision and legacy at GAIA may be made here (please note “Bill’s fund” at checkout), or by check (again, noting “Bill’s fund”) mailed to GAIA, P.O. Box 3829, San Rafael, CA 94912.

women carrying water pales