Marcus Jackson/About Town: Singing his praises

Marcus Jackson/About Town: Singing his praises

One of my favorite days each year is the first Monday in February. That's when the folks at Yankee Ridge Elementary in Urbana invite me, along with about a dozen other black men from the community, to read books about African-American history to the students in the school library.

It's usually the morning after the Super Bowl, so some of us are dragging from a late night. Urbana's energetic fire marshal, Phil Edwards, takes care of that, sparking a lively conversation about the big game or whatever else comes up.

And then, Willie T. Summerville would show up and the atmosphere would go to a level you didn't think was possible. He'd talk football, or family, or Sunday church service. And he'd do so with a smile, often bursting into audible laughter in a room that commands you to use your inside voice.

"That was just Mr. Summerville. He was never (sitting) still; he was always doing something," said Preston Williams Jr., the former Urbana superintendent and a regular at the read-ins. "I don't know where he got the energy, to be totally honest."

Mr. Summerville — the longtime music teacher in C-U schools and at the University of Illinois, as well as the choirmaster at Champaign's St. Luke Methodist Episcopal Church for the last 50 years — died Tuesday night. He was 72.

I had a handful of interactions with Mr. Summerville and he always took a genuine interest in me and what was going on in my life, whether personally or professionally. So when the tributes began pouring in over social media late Tuesday after news of his passing began to spread, I had no doubt that the folks he had deeper relationships with than me were speaking from more profound and meaningful experiences.

Urbana native Erika Harold's tribute recalled a time last year when she invited him to a gala and honored him during a speech about the teacher who most impacted her life.

"There is no one like Mr. Summerville," said Harold, a 1997 Urbana High graduate. "He was a larger-than-life personality but he used his unique blend of charisma and talent to draw people to him and to make them feel important. He was always smiling and positive."

Shortly after being named Miss America in 2003, Harold was invited back to her alma mater for an assembly. Little did she know what awaited her.

Mr. Summerville arranged for the entire choir to perform a song that she had sung during her time as a student. And he invited her to join them.

"I wasn't prepared for that, especially to sing a solo," she said. "As my presentation, I did a mock crowning and I brought Mr. Summerville on stage and had the students cheer for him as I crowned him Mister America. He had a profound impact on my time in high school."

'He knew he was loved'

Harold's post was just one of hundreds that continued to flood social media overnight Tuesday and into Wednesday.

"He just loved people, loved working with folks and loved helping people reach their potential and understanding things," Williams said.

And while friends and admirers were publicly sharing their love and appreciation online, those who knew Mr. Summerville best took comfort in knowing that he was aware of his impact while he was still with us.

"There's an old adage — 'Don't give me my flowers when I'm gone, let me have them while I'm here' — and I think no matter where he went or the situation, the students and the community always showed love to Mr. Summerville," Williams said. "He knew he was loved."

A native of Crosset, Ark., Mr. Summerville had been a staple in this community since he arrived as a graduate student in the mid-1960s to play tuba in the Marching Illini. He taught music at Robeson, Marquette and Bottenfield schools in Champaign and later in Urbana at Brookens Junior High, Urbana Junior High and Urbana High until his "retirement" in 2005.

Mr. Summerville then served as an adjunct instructor at the UI, teaching classes on African-American sacred music. And in addition to his 50 years at St. Luke's, Mr. Summerville also directed Canaan Baptist Church's adult choir.

His wife of 48 years, Valerian, died in 2014. They had two sons, Derrick and Willie M., and a daughter, Shandra.

He brought 'harmony'

Joe Hampton, a 1998 Urbana High graduate, wrote a lengthy tribute to Mr. Summerville on his Facebook page, recalling the one time he saw the music teacher without a smile on his face.

Another student had referred to a classmate by a racial slur and Mr. Summerville used the moment to teach a lesson about language and race while quickly bringing joy back to the classroom.

"What a time to lose him, huh," Hampton wrote. "The world can use some more Willie Summervilles in public places right now."

Harold also shared that one of Mr. Summerville's lasting legacies will be the diversity of his school choirs.

"He was able to unify students from all backgrounds," Harold said. "His choirs were always racially diverse and comprised of people from different backgrounds and he was able to use music and the way he approached life as a way of bringing people together who might not ordinarily find common ground.

"That stands out because at a time right now where we have a lot of discord, Mr. Summerville brought harmony into every environment in which he found himself."

'My guy — Mr. Willie T.'

Hampton recalled Mr. Summerville entertaining with his music at Urbana assemblies and singing his own version of "Happy Birthday" after asking who in the crowd of hundreds was celebrating a birthday around that time.

He also shared the story of Mr. Summerville walking down the line of cars at Prairie Elementary in the 1970s, helping kids and their lost parents make it to class, sometimes imitating the well-known line of "Hey, hey, hey" made famous by Fat Albert "to put at ease the stunned little 5- and 6-year-old kids who didn't know anyone like him."

"He was peace, faith, joy and music," Hampton wrote.

Williams will miss calling Mr. Summerville on the phone and hearing his voicemail greeting of "Jesus loves you!"

Although that one time, it wasn't a recorded message.

"One time, though, he got me because I was waiting for the beep and he was like 'Hello? Preston?' I was waiting for the beep," Williams said with a laugh. "He was a good man, a Christian brother, family man, icon in the community. That was my guy — Mr. Willie T."

The community won't be the same without Mr. Summerville, and neither will that first Monday in February.

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