Q. Would you sweep up the leaves in the forest?
A. This is not the forest.
Q. Well, O.K.
A few feet away is Gnadt's car, a 1965 Oldsmobile. He recently painted the whole thing black, including the chrome. "You don't often see that," he says.
In the basement of the house is Gnadt's small bedroom. There is one window, covered by a towel. "I don't have a curtain," he says. "Is that bad?" Everywhere are books. Books, books, books. He's forever picking one up and blowing the dust off it, which is a good idea if he wants to read the title. Last year, Gnadt read 129 books; he has averaged 60 a year for 50 years. He has read three different encyclopedias from beginning ("Aardvarks really are very interesting," he says) to end. Among the areas he concentrates on: World War II, old movies ("If you have to explain to somebody why Citizen Kane was the greatest film ever made, it's too late") and medicine. Three times he has read and annotated his 22-volume Medical and Health Encyclopedia. Says Gnadt, "If you don't reread, you forget. All colleges are, are places where bright people pass tests. Retaining it is something else. I just get down here like a slug and read." For at least five hours a day. Seldom does he turn on a light; during a recent month his electricity bill was $6.
Says former NBA guard Mike Newlin, "Bill is the quintessential scholar-athlete. He takes it to the limit in both areas. He's a scholar-athlete for a lifetime." When Newlin was a star player and an honors student at the University of Utah in the late 1960s, he met Gnadt. It changed Newlin forever. Gnadt changes forever everyone he meets. Says Newlin, "He's an ignored natural resource. Meet him and he advances the quality of your life."
That's because Gnadt is fascinating about everything and fascinated about everything. In the 1970s he excelled in table tennis, ranking as high as fifth in the state, and has some 100 trophies to prove it. In '61 he finished fifth in the Mr. Utah contest, and five-time Mr. Universe Bill Pearl, another of Gnadt's friends, says: "For him to be fifth, with his inferior body, was as big an accomplishment as me being Mr. Universe. He never quits anything. Once he gets involved, it's a lifetime commitment. I think the only problem with him is, he's too profound, too deep."
Gnadt's mind is a loose cannon inside his head. It shoots off in 1,000 directions at the same time. Ask him how to get to a shopping mall, and he is instantly talking road construction. "I once had a friend who could talk for 25 minutes on blackbirds," he says, just before he switches gears and rails against speed-reading. "When [Daphne] du Maurier started off Rebecca, 'Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,' she didn't intend for that to be speed-read," says Gnadt. He repeats the opening line again, softly, slowly, and the words take on added luster.
Gnadt has led a quixotic and bittersweet life. He was born March 8, 1928, in Boise, Idaho, to William Edward and Alice Lynch Gnadt, and moved with his parents to Salt Lake City in '34. In '38, when his parents bought him his first magic set, he would "do a show for anyone who could bear the strain." His first trick consisted of putting a die into a hat, then making the die disappear and reappear in another hat, previously shown to be empty. He developed his skills as a magician and became especially adept at the manipulation of playing cards; to this day he practices such skills as card fanning for one hour every other day. Then came a fateful meeting in the early '40s, outside Salt Lake's Paramount Theater, when funny-man magician Carl Ballantine saw Gnadt doing manipulation tricks. "Clever," said Ballantine. "You ought to try juggling."
Ballantine showed Gnadt the rudiments of juggling and Gnadt was thrilled. He devoted himself to learning juggling, getting help from a stock boy at the local Safeway who could juggle three oranges—if the boss wasn't looking. "I watched one hand to get the pattern down," says Gnadt.