John Foreman: The irresistible Willie T. Summerville
One of these days, I'll meet the man who didn't like Willie Summerville. I'm pretty sure I haven't met him yet — and I can tell you I don't look forward to the day.
Willie T. Summerville — musician, educator, force of nature — died last week at the age of 72. I have a hard time believing that anyone ever exposed to him doesn't feel some sense of loss.
I can't call myself a friend, but Willie seemed so much more than an acquaintance. I loved him, loved to see him, loved to talk to him. It seems just everyone loved him, and the reason isn't hard to understand. Willie loved all them first.
I met him the same way I met scores of people over the years, when he came by my office seeking help. Over the years, most of these people were bores. "We're such a worthy cause," they would say. "Please give us a) money b) advertising c) publicity or d) all of the above. We need it tomorrow."
Willie was different. He was taking his school choir to Italy. "I don't want any money," he said right off the bat, although he had to raise money — a lot of money. He didn't want a boatload of free advertising either. "I just want you to tell the children's story," he said. Never, for one minute, did he stop smiling.
He was irresistible. Years later, when economics had forced the paper to curtail cash gifts and free ads and much of what had once been so routine, he could get whatever he wanted. And he never wanted much.
He'd bound into the paper, smiling and laughing, and I'd give him an ad for this good cause or that good deed. He was involved in so many. He always said please and he always said thank you. That is to say, he said, "THAAAANK YOU!" Most of Willie's exclamations had multiple vowels and just as many decibels.
Melissa Merli brought her customary gusto to covering "the children" in the high school choir that year. It went to Italy — and the students performed at the Vatican.
Before they left, Willie invited Melissa and me to a school assembly sending them off, a chance for members of the choir to say "THAAAANK YOU!!!" to those who had helped a little.
I was seated next to then-Superintendent Gene Amberg, a fairly diminutive fellow who happened to be Catholic, as Willie worked the line shaking hands and dispensing hugs. The choir director, a big teddy bear of a man, reached for his school superintendent like a black bear reaching for a trout. "Geeeeeeene," he sang out, "you know me and that Pope are gonna get along just fiiiiine, 'cause we both LOOOOOOOVEs Jesus!!!!"
I swear I heard the gym rafters rumble, followed by the soft sound of skittish school administrators melting on the floor. Amberg just smiled.
Willie was irresistible, always smiling, always laughing, often belting forth in a voice he could lift by two or three octaves to make a point or squeal in delight.
When I ran into him somewhere not that long after the unexpected death of his wife, his partner of nearly five decades, he was pleased with the way arrangements had been handled, soooooo happy at the outpouring of community sentiment. Sooooo happy.
And the last time I spoke to him — in a parking lot where he was delivering fliers about the upcoming performance of one of his choirs, he told me he had recently attended the funeral of a young man killed in Chicago's gun violence. I adopted the proper note of solemn concern. Willie smiled and his voice quickened the way it did when he was most excited. He had talked to a couple of the young man's friends there and started telling them about Jesus. They didn't go to church, he said, but they listened to him, the way thousands of children had listened to him over the years in choir rooms and classrooms. I'm sure he was smiling.
He thought he might have helped them find the Lord.
Willie was irresistible.
If you've read all the testimonials we've published about this remarkable man, you've heard people wonder where he found all the energy, all the joy and all the love he poured forth.
But I know how he would answer that question.
He wore the love of Jesus on his sleeve on both sleeves and right over his heart. And he believed what Jesus said about the way to treat your fellow man, something about love. He was one of maybe a half dozen people I've ever met whose faith seemed so genuine — and so genuinely appealing.
You had to want what Willie had. That was his ministry, the ministry of joy and ministry of love.
And it was irresistible.
John Foreman is the president of The News-Gazette Inc. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.