Remembering Mr. Willis

December 13, 2019 Updated: December 13, 2019
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I never called him Dick, never to others when he was absent and certainly never to his face. Even as our friendship stretched into my 40s, calling him by his first name never felt normal. I’m not sure I could have made the word come out of my mouth. Even when I saw him a few months ago, I greeted him as Mr. Willis. 

We met when I was a lonely 16-year-old, full of all the intensity that characterizes that age but with a special interest in ideas and poems and stories. He was an energetic mid-career English teacher, legendary for his theatrical approach to education. 

His class was a turning point for me. Already I was a fledgling writer, hoarding poems and scraps of essays in disintegrating folders, three-ring binders, and, when necessary, the back of my biology book. My identity as a writer was cemented the day I asked if he would look at some of these scribblings. For the next two years, I submitted endless bits of my adolescent mind to him, which he took with the utmost seriousness. No work I handed him ever came back without a stack of written notes correcting my grammar, commenting on issues of style, and reflecting on the content.

His investment in me laid the foundation for a friendship that survived the transition from my adolescence to adulthood. For years after I left high school, he would write me letters detailing his adventures in the classroom and around the world.

We stayed in touch until Mr. Willis died last month. His own memory, which has been a stabilizing and directing force for almost 35 years, is gone. 

This, however, is not just another “teacher-who-made-a-difference” story. It is a story about hiddenness, about light and dark, and, ultimately, about the nature of the world—which is fitting, because it is these things that also lay at the heart of Mr. Willis’s lessons.

I grew up in New Castle, Indiana. You’ve never heard of it. Few have. In its heyday, about 20,000 people lived there. The town sits on a straight line between Indianapolis and the border of Ohio. At that time, New Castle was an industrial town, just beginning the decline that would come in future decades to similar towns across the country. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about it is its ordinariness. This is not a slight. To be ordinary is a very good thing. In those days, New Castle possessed the kind of ordinariness that made it a place that people mean when they say “a great place to bring up a family,” a small, nondescript burg where both threats and opportunities were minimal.

The high school I attended valued two things above all: basketball and order. When the basketball team did well, we’d be excused from class to file into the largest high school field house in the world for a pep rally, where we’d be encouraged to scream and yell and transfer every bit of teenage energy we could muster to the players, as if our enthusiasm alone would carry them to a championship.

Such convulsions of sports fanaticism were the only sanctioned outlet for our stored energy. A normal day was regimented down to the moment. Hundreds of students moved through six classes a day and a short lunch period with precision. While the rigidity kept us safe and efficient, for a young man yearning for artistic expression and freedom, the environment was as barren as the surface of a far-off moon.

In this setting, Mr. Willis attracted attention. He carried his background as an actor into the classroom. Whether it was reciting Poe’s “The Raven” or Kipling’s “Gunga Din,” Mr. Willis didn’t so much lecture as perform. Watching him daily, I began to pick up something subversive in his teaching. When he taught Thoreau, he seemed to think Henry was really on to something. There was, he seemed to hint, some value in failing to conform. It was this stream of sincerity, and his willingness to take seriously the ideas put forward in literature, even when their implications questioned the system in which we lived, that inspired in me the trust to approach him that day with my inchoate hope that I could be a writer.

I wasn’t the only one he encouraged. When his passing was announced on Facebook, many former students reminisced, calling him a great teacher, talking about the passion for life and the arts he had bequeathed them. Such lauds are appropriate surely, but they leave a less than a concrete impression. 

Here is an example of what they meant. This week, I wandered a library, slinking quietly up and down through the stacks, reading titles and author’s names as I have done since high school. I stopped to pick up a book by an author whose name I recognized but whose work I had never read. 

The opening line was a stunner. Full of energy and intrigue and unanswered questions, it did its job. Instantly, on that afternoon, more than 30 years after graduating high school, I thought, “Oh, Mr. Willis would like that.” Then, I remembered he was gone. 

That is what those abstract testaments to the power of his passion and personality really mean. They mean that, 30 years later, your mind still sees him as the arbiter of taste and roots itself in the ability to take pleasure in stray sentences he modeled. No little thing like death can stop such power. 

And that is the lasting point. No one knew about Mr. Willis. He never stood on a national stage, never received prestigious awards everyone can name. He didn’t even have a blog. And yet, he was never without an audience, one he drew to himself through the power of his love. If there is a lesson to be drawn from that, it is this, that even in unknown places, even in places of rigid order, there are those who know that the spirit can be freed, that seeds carefully nurtured can sprout into unforeseen fruit; and that even in the most ordinary places, shine extraordinary lights.

Dean Abbott is a writer living in Ohio with his wife and daughters. His writing focuses on virtue, personal relationships, and quieter living. Follow him on Twitter @DeanAbbott