Willie Summerville: "Somebody say 'Amen'"

Willie Summerville: "Somebody say 'Amen'"

By Samantha Bakall 

Willie T. Summerville sits behind the church organ, his fingers dancing on the keys and his lips slightly pursed at the microphone, ready to sing. He does not need his hands to conduct. His elbows, shoulders and upper body serve as the signaling baton. His close-cropped hair is sprinkled salt and pepper, showing his 67 years against his dark skin. His large, grandfather-esque bifocal glasses overshadow the rest of his face, but through the thick lenses, his eyes are smiling.

"Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, what a wonder You are " the choir echoes after Mr. Summerville's lead, as the organ rises forth, full and authoritative, modulating up a key. The choir members are old, young, white, black, lifelong Christians and recent born-agains. Some of them sing at the top of their lungs, others are shy and almost mute. For some, this is their first choir rehearsal. Others have grown up in church choirs, just like he did.

"Beautiful rose of Sharon, what a wonder You are "

"Somebody say, 'Amen,'" Mr. Summerville dictates to the group in his raspy and resonant voice above the low drone of the receding organ. "We come every week to be unified and offer God something that should be offered for him, in decency and in order."

Eruptions of "Praise the Lord" and "Amen" follow.

Thursday evening choir rehearsal at Urbana's Canaan Baptist Church is just one weekly activity that fills Mr. Summerville's busy schedule. His daily alarm goes off at 6 a.m. In fasting season, the day starts with Bible study and prayer. His grandson has band practice at 6:50 a.m. Regular Bible study and group prayer is on Wednesday nights. He also has to prepare for his Monday evening class — "Harmonizing Differences using African American Sacred Music" — at the University of Illinois. Meetings and doctor appointments are ever present, as are funeral services to play for, reference letters to write and rehearsals to conduct.

In his busy schedule, Mr. Summerville doesn't spend much time reflecting on his mortality. In fact, he is pretty confident he's on God's saved list.

+ + +

For once, he is not sitting behind an organ. He stands tall, proud, in his dark brown suit, while rows of white-topped and black-bottomed clad singers file silently past him onto the stage, ready to sing. The audience sits, patiently waiting for the last person to walk on stage. Mr. Summerville is taking it all in. He ambles up the aisle of the church, taking time to greet members in the audience and acknowledge his colleagues. By the time he reaches the front, the choir is ready and it is time to sing.

The friendly man who leisurely strolled to the front of the room is transformed. He raises his arms swiftly, in one gesture, and cues the organist to begin. Within the first few measures of the opening song, he is part of the choir. His age disappears. He conducts with such joy and fury that his energy outshines that of many young choir members.

He dances to the music, letting every chord progression and modulation guide his movements and lift his spirit. He is a show unto himself.

In this moment, it is just Willie T. Summerville, the music and Jesus.

+ + +

Born in Sunshine, Ark., near the Louisiana-Mississippi state line during the late 1950s, Mr. Summerville has lived what he calls a "blessed" life. He was the middle child of five born to Moses and Lenora Summerville. The only boy. He grew up in Crossett, a town about 40 miles west of Sunshine. His father was a lumber mill worker, church choir director and a quartet singer. His mother was a cook whose lemon sour cream cake was so good it has been passed down several generations. All the children had to sing and participate in church at least until they moved out of the house.

"Being in the choir was not an option," he says, laughing.

Music and faith in Jesus Christ have been ways of life for him, and sources of comfort, ever since he was a little boy. He learned piano from his father and started playing at church when he was 14. He can quote numerous scriptures off the top of his head, knowledge he refers to as "an insurance policy I'm walking around with that's paid up."

He is also one of Champaign-Urbana's best-known citizens, a literal icon in the sacred music community. After attending the UI for his master's degree in music education, he spent three years teaching music in the Champaign public schools and 35 years in Urbana's schools.

This year marks his 34th year at Canaan Baptist and his 45th year at St. Luke's Christian Methodist in Champaign. He has participated in more than 80 workshops and clinics at churches, universities and air force bases all over the country and world. He is even asked to occasionally hum a few bars at city council meetings.

"You know what will make you known with people and you don't even be trying to?" he asks. "Serve the people. There's so much to do; it's that kind of involvement. I've been blessed. There have been people who have shown me how much they appreciate my work."

+ + +

Mr. Summerville has believed he is going to heaven since he was saved in elementary school. But he's not in any sort of rush — too many things still left for him to do here on earth, and too many people who depend on him.

"I know that I do a lot of things that people depend on me," he says. "And I don't know if others would be as passionate about doing them if I was asked to go to heaven earlier."

Christians, he says, do not look at retirement like regular people do. Retirement for them — for him — is heaven.

"If I have health and strength, I want to be serving and helping others, and I do that."

Mr. Summerville is thankful for the little things. At his age, many of his contemporaries are in nursing homes and hospitals, but he is still able to get around easily, drive his car and maintain his vision, he says, thanks to God.

"I want to live out my life and do what He tells me He wants me to do," Mr. Summerville says. "I don't treat going to heaven like gambling."

Samantha Bakall is a University of Illinois journalism student. This story was done last spring in a version of Professor Walt Harrington's literary feature writing class that included students and News-Gazette staffers. Funding came from the Marajen Stevick Foundation.

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EL YATIRI wrote on December 23, 2012 at 8:12 am
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What a load of superstitious, religious hogwash!

dd1961 wrote on December 28, 2012 at 12:12 pm

I think you should get to know this man.  Mr Summerville is an amazing person!

LuvMoon wrote on February 07, 2013 at 9:02 am

I really feel sorry for you El Yatri.. not only because you don't have a wonderful person like Deacon Summerville in your life.. and judging from your Pathetic reply, I feel safe to say that you're also missing God in your life...  I'm not going to attempt to defend Willie T, because a person like you will never get it.. and his actions speaks for their self..  The only thing that I can say to you is:




Robeman1957 wrote on December 23, 2012 at 9:12 am

While you may consider it hogwash others do not.  Having known and worked with Mr. Summerville for more than 25 years I assure you that he is strong in his beliefs and convictions.  There are very few people that I know who are and have been more involved and dedicated to helping all others for as long as he has.  Our community is a better place for having Mr. Summerville in it.

You are entitled to your own views but please don't belittle those of others.

theEd-itor wrote on December 23, 2012 at 4:12 pm

Mr. Summerville is loved and respected by a great mass of people all over this country and is a true blessing to anyone he has ever met.  I had him for choir in Junior high at Broookens and when I read this article I could hear the one of a kind voice that I will always remember and the kindness behind the voice that is Willie Summerville.

The man is an Icon and loved by a tremendous amount of people and it was a pleasure to read this article about a man that is a very larger than life diamond in what is becoming a very dark and ugly world.  Of course Mr. Summerville you would say the opposite and how great (grape as you say) everything is in the uplifting person that you are to so many of us.

To the person that said this is hogwash and whatever else he said in his article it's obvious he needs a Mr. Summerville in his life, and I hope he someday gets the priveledge to meet him, maybe it will change his life like this wonderful man has changed many of our lives for the better.

I could go on writing about this great person but I will stop now.

I know I speak for many thousands when I say thank you Mr. Summerville, you have achieved a greatness that very few people can, and we are blessed to know you.  

Danno wrote on December 23, 2012 at 4:12 pm

Q: How do you get the attention of 12-13 yr old adolescent boys; perhaps many of whom were much more interested in pinball machines, BB guns, firecrackers, girls and, general  tomfoolery?

A: Get them in choir with Willie T.!

Mr. Summerville didn't 'command' your attention or respect. During your first week of class, most freely gave it. Even had vinyl cut of the choir (before CDs, four TV channels available, no computers, push button land-line phones, etc).

His enthusiasm for the genre of art he loves bubbled into the streets. Certainly got our attention.

Thank you, Mr. Summerville.

An afore mentioned former student,

Urbana Brookens Jr. High, Class of 1975


prideCU wrote on December 23, 2012 at 10:12 pm

Amen! While so many demand tolerance a coexistence for their beliefs, they are so quick to tear down Christians. Mr. Summerville is a godly man who lives perhaps not a perfect life, but pretty darn close to what Jesus Christ modeled. You don't have to accept Christianity. Don't tear down those of us who do. Thank God for role models like Mr. Summerville who actually care and shine the true light of Jesus Christ! With that said, Merry Christmas! :)

KSearsmith wrote on December 24, 2012 at 10:12 pm

Thank you for helping us come to know Mr. Summerville a little better. My family met him in the parking lot of a home improvement store. We helped him to put some lumber in his car. This kind of regular, casual exchange between strangers turned into something more -- he blessed us and we truly felt his warmth!

LeslieM wrote on December 29, 2012 at 2:12 am

I had Mr. Summerville in Urbana Jr high school as a chrous teacher. He was by far my favorite teacher not because it was an easy class, but because he made it fun. He liked to joke a bunch and just made class fun. Everybody I have ever known that has known Mr. Summerville has always had such respect for him. I respect him even to this day. Mr. summeville was always there to help someone and for those that like to mess off in class he was never mean nor degraded them nor ever sent them to the office, he found a way to get them involved. Whoever it was that made such bad comments about his religion maybe you should meet him and see what a wonderful person he is and how his religion has played a part in his life and all of his student's and church goers lives. Mr Summerville I have always been and always be your little cabbage patch doll.