By Michael Willard
If he were still around, Willard would be 100 years old this month.
That’s what my mother called him throughout their lives together, as did most everyone. His given name was Herald. He was a star without the sequins and swagger.
Willard — I called him daddy — was short-changed terribly and died of heart failure on a sticky hot night in North Mississippi. He was 53, and on that July weekend he had planned to attend a family reunion near Oxford.
Earlier in the day, as it was related to me, the doctor to whom he complained of chest pains called it minor indigestion. So, he popped a few more anti-acid pills he always kept in his pocket. I guess you could say he died of heartburn.
And what a heart it was.
In the whispering still of the evening as frogs croak and crickets chirp, I sit on my front porch in Florida wondering on the stars, cradling a tumbler of whiskey, and contemplating that we were so alike.
That, though, would be a wistful lie. He was an extraordinarily good man. He wore that goodness like one would a favorite trench coat, never being without it. My foibles and adventures are legend, some actually true.
When I was 12, the Air Force sent him to Thule, Greenland, a desolate hardship posting. There wasn’t a day that entire year my mom and dad didn’t exchange information and love letters. Sometimes they arrived in batches.
During that time, about 1957, my mom made the independent decision to buy an early version of a dishwasher, the one you hooked with hoses to the kitchen sink. She worried that Willard would think it a foolish purchase in his absence.
If he did, I never heard a complaint about that or the encyclopedia set she purchased from a door-to-door salesman. Still, he would most often do the dishes himself, rarely paying attention to the contraption in the kitchen.
My clearest memory of him was as a lad of six, traveling at night down Route 66 across the western plains toward California with him singing off key hymns interspersed with childhood tales of an old dog named True Boy.
I loved those stories, and maybe it was the spark that led me to become a storyteller on pulp as a journalist and novelist. I am not sure he would have understood my diversion into public relations and advertising.
During football season, we would — including my brother Glen — hop into our aging auto and crank up a tinny radio to listen through static to his favorite team, the Ole Miss Rebels, living and dying with every down.
For much of his time on earth, we were a vagabond family, traveling from military base to military base. Willard would hook a 39-foot house trailer up to a 1950 Champion Studebaker and we would huff and puff to the next assignment.
Sometimes, a farmer on a tractor in the rural hinterlands would have to tow car and trailer over the looming hill the engine was incapable of conquering. On arrival Willard would build an extra room to accommodate the now family of five.
Some people don’t get the lives they deserve, an ample allotment of time to dispense depression-era wisdom accumulated behind the back of a mule plowing through alluvial soil. I was in my late 20s when he died.
I never got over it. Never will.
Willard was a simple fellow, which is not to say he was simple-minded. Unlike this in-between son, he could fix things, including walking me through algebra and geometry, repairing my motor scooter, or tackling a TV set that died.
Me? I wouldn’t know into which engine cavity an oil dip stick should be inserted.
While I learned many lessons from great bosses in business and politics (and hopefully I became a decent boss), most every value that stuck with me came from a man named Willard.
And yes, I also do the dishes and warn my daughters not to marry a fellow who doesn’t. Such a guy wouldn’t be worth his salt.
That’s a Willard wisdom you can take to the bank.