The Big 10 with Jeff D'Alessio, March 12, 2017

The Big 10 with Jeff D'Alessio, March 12, 2017

How many lives did the late WILLIE SUMMERVILLE touch as a beloved music teacher and maker?

So many that his celebration of life will be a three-day affair — a public viewing Wednesday at Urbana High's gym, a concert Thursday at Mount Olive Baptist and a service Friday at The Vineyard.

We asked 33 of those fortunate enough to have known him for their favorite Willie T. memory.

Marilyn Thadison, front row, third from right, is part of St. Luke CME Church’s famed choir. (photo provided)

St. Luke CME Church

"I first met Mr. Summerville when he arrived to teach at Urbana a long, long time ago. He became our music director that same year at St. Luke CME Church. He called me Merl. Why? I have no idea — that was Mr. Summerville. He gave lots of people new names.

"I remember on one occasion two years ago, he called me where he was sitting and asked me to do something. Well, he called me Merl again. I returned to my seat, and this guy who was also singing with us called out 'Merl.' I never looked around, nor did I acknowledge him. I continued what I was doing and he walked up and asked me why did ignore him.

"I said, 'Sir, that is not my name.'

"He said, 'That is what Deacon Summerville called you, so I thought that is your name.'

"I stated, 'Only Mr. Summerville calls me that.'

"Mr. Summerville was my teacher, my counselor, my friend and father figure. I have so many memories over these past 50-plus years, I cannot list them all. He is and will be truly missed. I think about all the lives he has touched. I have never met anyone like him.

"Deacon, you will live forever in my heart. What a wonderful and powerful example of love you gave to each of us.

"Love you, Mr. Summerville. You are now resting in peace because I now know where you are.


Pastor of St. Luke CME Church, where Deacon Summerville taught music for half a century

"Every pastor in the African American Church desires to have an 'Amen corner.' Deacon Willie T. Summerville was mine.

"I don't care what I preached about, his 'Amen' was the loudest and most encouraging 'Amen' in the sanctuary. He let me know the value of my sermons. He encouraged me so often. He made me think I was the most insightful, powerful and attuned preacher in the world. Afterwards, when we spoke in private, he always let me know which part of the sermons impacted him and helped him in his daily living.

"He lived the songs he taught and played for the love of the Lord. I am going to miss him saying 'Yes, Pastor. You are right, Pastor.'"

Principal, Jefferson Middle School

"I first met Willie T. Summerville in the fall of 1998 as a music education student at the University of Illinois. I frequently chose to observe his classes at Urbana Middle and High School because, to be frank, I had never met someone like him. The charisma, personality, musicianship and humor used in his classroom was second to none.

"I began working with him as a music teacher in the fall of 2000 and he adopted me as his 'vanilla' daughter. I can't tell you how many voicemails I have received where he has said 'Annnnnn, this is your chocolate father — you need to call me, Annnnnn.'

"In his classes, he referred to all the students as his children and everyone was 'cousins.' He frequently used ice cream flavors to break down racial barriers and stereotypes in the school and in society. It was his way of being socially just. He would ask for the caramel students to join in the singing with the chocolate, vanilla, strawberry and Neapolitan children of the world.

"We became lifelong friends and he mentored me from day one. I had the privilege of taking over the choir program at Urbana High in 2005 after he retired, although he consistently came back to volunteer his time.

"WTS was a part of my wedding ceremony in 2005 as my 'chocolate' father and has been a presence in my family since. I attribute my educational impact on anyone to Willie T. Summerville because of how he grew me as a person and teacher early on in my career."

Champaign County Black Chamber

"I was 9 or 10. We were having an assembly at Yankee Ridge School, where Mr. Summerville and the UHS chorus were coming to perform.

"I'll never forget how in awe I was when the choir members came into the gym wearing robes. The only time I had seen this was at church. Then Mr. Summerville silenced the group and everyone in the gym was quiet. He began to play the piano — the most beautiful notes I'd ever heard. I immediately knew when I was old enough, I wanted to join that choir, which I did when I entered Urbana Middle/High School.

"At one practice, Mr. Summerville called me to his piano to sing a song. He knew I couldn't sing. I could tell by the look on his face and how many times I had to sing that verse over and over. But I wanted to be in this choir — bad. After singing, he said, 'You are an alto, Lipscomb girl. Take your place.' I will never forget how proud I felt. Later on, my youngest daughter, Janiyah Bell, had the opportunity to be in his music class while attending Canaan Academy. She loved Mr. Summerville.

"My admiration grew over the years. Mr. Summerville was the type of guy who was stern but fair and would kiss your wound he created at the same time. He always had a way of dropping life nuggets in a way you knew the message was specifically for you."

Director, Champaign schools' Family Information Center

"I can recall when Willie T. Summerville helped my four grandsons to attend Hines College in Mississippi. My daughters weren't in the position during that time to financially pay their tuition, and he ensured they received scholarships.

"Mr. Summerville also took my grandson to the Vatican in Rome, which was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I could go on and on about the lives he touched in our community and I can truly say that we can look back with satisfaction and forward with faith.

"Mr. Summerville will be truly missed."

Assistant volleyball and literacy coach, Urbana schools

"It was spring 2002, my freshman year at UHS, and Mr. Summerville was preparing the Concert Choir for Carnegie Hall in New York City. Only problem, the freshmen choir is the Urbana Singers.

"We were in class one day, and he told me and another student to see him in his office. He was going to invite us to sing in NYC! This was it!

"Nope. I was trouble. Right, me, in trouble. But with Mr. Summerville, I was. He was disappointed that I did not want to be elected as a choir officer. To make matters worse, he pulled out the Bible! As if his disappointment was not enough, he brought God into it! Needless to say, by senior year, I was choir president.

"I am so blessed to have had him in my life — as an educator and as family. He and his wonderful wife, children, great and grandchildren were and are all such a joy to be around. The Summerville household was one of love. I loved him, and I am grateful to have spent time to thank him for all he does for me.

"He expected greatness from my family! He demanded it. Mr. Summerville mentored my father as an ordained deacon, instructed my mother's piano lessons, entrusted my brother as his chauffeur every winter for 'Handel's Messiah' in Gibson City, and I was just like, 'Ooh, Mr. Summerville, can I come?'

"He was amazing to witness. A true treasure to know. He embodied greatness, so maybe he was getting too good for earth. Forever spirited, Mr. Willie T. Summerville is now an angel."

UI Department of African American Studies

"I have known Mr. Willie T. Summerville all of my life but more recently have worked with him for the last year-and-a-half at the University of Illinois Department of African American Studies.

"Mr. Summerville would always come into the office and then sit in the chair in front of my desk and rest before going upstairs to his office. One time, he was really talking to me about attending church with him. I said 'yes, maybe one day.' He said 'OK, I will remind you of it later' and he fell asleep.

"I figured he was tired all from the running around helping others, as he always did. It was only he and I in the office so I kept working at my desk.

"Ten minutes later, he abruptly said, 'So, what day are you going to church with me, Tracee Ilene Palmer the first?' That's what he always called me. I jumped because I thought he was still asleep. He said 'why are you jumpy?' I said 'because you were asleep and how do you fall asleep mid-sentence and wake up and continue the sentence?'

"He laughed and said, 'Child, I have to think while sleeping!' Then he said 'wait, why did you let me sleep anyway?' I said 'I figured you were on break and how you spend it is your business!' He laughed so hard and I did, too.

"We had lots of moments like that in the office. He was always so kind to me. He had such a big heart — and it showed. I will miss him dearly. The office will never be the same."

Co-Director, BBL Fine Arts Academy

"My mother and father loved Mr. Summerville. He was extended family and was certainly an older brother figure to me, in both the artistic and community activist realms.

"As a fellow artist, I got to see sides of him that perhaps others who are not artists did not see. Yes, he had a wonderful personality and always seemed 'up.' But he carried deep scars from his past treatment as a black man in Arkansas and similar, more subtle treatment in his adopted hometown. Real artists are very vulnerable to uncalled-for human cruelty, and I could relate to his pain as such.

"But although such occurrences hurt him deeply, he never let them overcome or overshadow his musical brilliance, or commitment to the betterment of those around him. He was a wonderful role model for me as to how to take painful racial indifference or hostility and yet shine as a light in those dark places. He was able to lift others up despite his own personal circumstances."

Champaign musician, mentor

"My father is the Reverend Willie Lee Jones. He was an ordained minister at Mr. Summerville's church and they became instant friends.

"Mr. Summerville would come over to the house and say 'I know y'all needed a ride this morning, so me and Sheila' — that's what he named his car — 'came to take y'all to church.' I remember saying, 'This dude is crazy' but I couldn't stop laughing.

"He would have chicken bones, snacks, Bibles, music papers, everything in there but you learned to respect Sheila. Sheila was warm in the winter and cold in summer. She never broke down and everybody knew her name 'cause she blessed so many people.

"Those chicken bones and cans and snack wrappings were from those who didn't have much. We knew riding in Sheila with him you were going to get a nice ride, a funny but a meaningful conversation and something to eat."

Choir member, St. Luke CME

"I have known Mr. Summerville since I was 11 years old and he was 22. He was the director of music at St. Luke CME Church, which I am still a member of.

"He has been one of the most influential people of my life. He's been my piano teacher, friend, confidant, guidance counselor and godfather to my son. I will miss him dearly and the way he called me by my middle name, Inezzzzzzzz; saying 'Sing Carmie' and my newest nickname, MGM, for Myles' grandmother.

"His legacy will live on through so many people. He was a true man of God and has had a tremendous impact on my life. I remember him always saying that the Word of God will either draw you or drive you, and I dare you to trust God.

"I listened to your words of wisdom well, Mr. Summerville! Thank you, thank you, thank you!"

Served together at Canaan Baptist

"I vividly recall attending a conference in Seattle and the gentleman loading my luggage onto the shuttle bus noticed I had traveled from Champaign. His first question to me: Did I know Willie T. Summerville? He went on to tell me that Mr. Summerville taught his ninth-grade music class at Urbana High School and shared how much of an impact Mr. Summerville made on him and his life.

"For the past eight to 10 years, I served as his personal barber. He would often come over for haircuts late in the evenings after teaching piano lessons or preparing to travel somewhere to do a music conference. He'd often share sage advice on marriage, manhood, faith or fatherhood.

"He was never short on stories but after starting a good story or conversation, it wouldn't be long before he would drift off into a deep sleep. I would often extend the length of time it took to complete his haircut because I knew those few moments of rest and peace were needed. He gave so much to others, I felt it was my duty and obligation to allow him a few moments to recharge and refresh before he had to hurry off to teach, or encourage someone else.

"I often referred to him as my favorite deacon; a title he wore with pride. We served together in ministry at Canaan Baptist Church and his faith in Christ was clear and publicly known by all who came in contact with him. If more churches had deacons with the heart of service he had, the world would be a better place. He demonstrated what loyalty, commitment and sacrifice looked like and he did it with class and dignity. Few could be in his presence for long without laughing or learning.

"Our community is better because of the rich heritage and legacy known as Deacon Willie T. Summerville."

1994 Urbana High grad

"I did not have Mr. Summerville as a teacher, but he treated everyone as if they were his. If you walked into his classroom to deliver something, there was the potential that you may be acknowledged by the choir singing an impromptu song for you. It made anyone's day.

"He could see potential in all and that was apparent every day. He wasn't only a teacher; he was a confidant, a friend and a mentor. If a student was scared of something, he had a calming nature. His trust and belief in the Lord was evidenced by his daily actions.

"The world would be a much better place if all of us lived life on earth as Willie Summerville did."

Canaan Baptist

"In every city there are people you should know, but Deacon Summerville is an extraordinary version of that person. I have to say that the God brought Deacon Summerville to me.

"My husband, Paul, and I met him about two years ago at Canaan Baptist Church when we first moved to the city of Champaign. We didn't know him or anyone else in the city, but at the end of service, he was the very first person to introduce himself to us. We immediately bonded over a love for Jesus, Gospel music and 'Handel's Messiah' and he quickly became someone my husband and I talked about in our everyday lives.

"Over the next couple of weeks, I saw Deacon Summerville interact with bankers, musicians and formerly incarcerated person. In every single interaction, I saw the very same Deacon Summerville — the same caring, humorous man of integrity that introduced himself to us that Sunday morning at Canaan.

"Deacon Summerville became the conduit of many musical and social blessings. Within months, Deacon Summerville and I had performed 'Handel's Messiah' together and had even allowed me to perform some of my own arrangements with his choir and orchestra.

"Thank God for Deacon Summerville."

Sisters of Champaign-Urbana

"I met Willie Summerville my freshman year at AM&N College (Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical & Normal College) over 50 years ago.

"The night my husband passed in 2010, he came to Carle Hospital around midnight along with Sean Tatum. Sean drove my car while Willie T. drove me to his house in his car, forbidding me to return to my empty house for the night. I wore one of Val's nightgowns and proceeded to my bedroom as instructed.

"Soon afterwards, he came back with a telephone, a snack basket, reading materials, a notepad, toothpaste and a toothbrush. Upon hearing movement the next morning, I went into the kitchen, where he offered me breakfast and informed me that Val would accompany me when I was ready to go home.

"Ever since then, Willie T. has been sensitive toward my loss and made sure that I did not spend holidays alone, unless that was my choice. He always provided a full, nutritious meal with all the trimmings and carry-out privilege.

"He'd take me to dinner on my birthday whenever I was available, and on Valentine's Day about three weeks ago he came in with a box at 9 p.m. since both of us had several previous engagements.

"He emptied the box of the following items: a bouquet of flowers, a box of candy, a heart-shaped balloon, a bottle of sparkling grape juice, a stuffed animal and a card. I shall always remember his spirit of loving generosity and kindness."

Colleague in UI Department of African American Studies

"I was walking into Schnucks in Urbana in June 2011 to do some grocery shopping. Mr. Summerville was leaving the store. He saw me and immediately gave me his huge trademark smile. He asked me how I was doing.

"I told him that me and my wife were desperately trying to sell our house in Urbana before we moved to the East Coast in the coming weeks. I was visibly stressed, and he could sense it. He immediately grabbed my hands and started to say a prayer asking God to help us sell our house. I felt a sense of profound relief. All of this happened in the doorway of Schuncks while customers were coming and going.

"Ultimately, my wife and I never sold our house. We moved to the East Coast a few weeks later. But we returned to Champaign-Urbana in the following year. We moved right back into our home. It was a blessing we never sold our house. Upon our return to C-U, Mr. Summerville gave me a big hug the first time I saw him. I don't think we ever discussed our prayer in Schnucks. But I imagine he would have said something like: 'The Lord works in mysterious ways.'"

Pastor, Hope Vineyard, Paxton; former orchestra teacher, Urbana Middle and High School (1994-2001)

"As a brand new, rookie teacher in Urbana in 1994, I subbed for Mr. Summerville on multiple occasions.

"One day at the high school, I was doing my best to keep the chorus class engaged, but was having zero success. When Willie unexpectedly popped his head in the door to see how things were going, the room immediately fell dead silent without him even saying a word.

'He had a way with students unlike I've ever seen with any other teacher — mutual love and admiration that truly was divinely inspired."

Drummer, Jerico Missionary Baptist Church

"I will share the first time I ever played for Mr. Summerville. It was about three or four years ago. I just got back playing for Jericho.

"We had a program with Canaan. Our choir sang a couple section. Now it was Canaan's turn. I'm getting off the drums and Mr. Summerville stopped me. He says to me, 'Young fella, get back on the drums. I need a good drummer and that's you, Chris.' I'm thinking: 'Wow, you know my name. And you think I'm good.'

"Before that day, I was questioning whether I should stick with the drums. But Mr. Summerville encouraged me. That what's he did — always encourage people."

Nurse in Jonesboro, Ga.

"Mr. Summerville was my chorus teacher from the seventh grade until I graduated high school. He always lovingly referred to me as 'my Rhonda Tonda.'

"We were always sure to get a good laugh in his class. If we sang out of tune he would instantly stop the music and say, 'NO, NO, NO to the White House, No! Somebody is O-F-F, off!' and go one by one through each section until he found the culprit.

"Needless to say, he was serious about his craft. I last saw him a year ago and I was still his 'Rhonda Tonda.'

"There are not enough words to say how he impacted my life. Even in death, his life and legacy still inspire me. He will be forever loved and his presence tremendously missed."