He Is …

“How do I begin to answer the question I know you been wonderin’?  When could … why could … how could it all be true, these things?  Who’s that … and what’s he to you? ~Heather Headley

My Willie T. memories are precious and abundant.   He tried to teach me to play the piano for several years until my HS freshman year.  And I sang with the St. Luke CME Youth Coir for about five years until the summer after my first year of college.

I remember when St. Luke Youth Choir first released the LP, Hold the Light. I was not a member of the choir or church at the time, but my paternal grandmother and aunts were members of St. Luke. Like almost everybody I knew, we had a copy and I played it to death!

I began piano lessons when I was 7 or 8 years old. My mother, who worked at Marquette School, came to know Mr. Summerville when he started teaching music there. (Yes, he was with Unit #4 first!) He began offering piano lessons at his home (first on Hedge Road in Champaign, and later Lantern Hill Drive in Urbana). And my mama moved me from Clifford V. Lloyde’s and their teacher to Willie T! (Supporting Black Business!!!)

Though I come from a musical family, I was never a very good pianist.  I did and do love music.  I learned the fundamentals – and can still bang out a simple song – but I simply was not a natural on the ivories. And like most kids, I hated practicing!

Since my piano lessons were in his home, I also got to know his family — his wife (the late) Mrs. Valerian Alexander Summerville, his sister Bertha Sue, his sister-in-law Kathya, and, over the years as they entered this world, his children (Derrick, Shandra and William Moses). Every week, I’d go to his home — half knowing what I was supposed to — and get my piano lesson as well as a lesson on love.

One day, Mr. Summerville told me I would play a hymn at one of the upcoming choir rehearsals. Needless to say I was scared to death! First of all, I was just not that great of a player. I could read the music and play, but I had no soul so to speak.  And #2 – I felt like he wanted me to sit and play before celebrities!

I put it off as long as possible but eventually that day came! I pounded out some hymn – don’t remember what. The choir sang while I played. I don’t recall anyone laughing or snickering – or maybe I was too nervous to notice.  I got through it. Afterwards, Mr. Summerville invited me to sit in with the choir while they rehearsed. “What? Sing with the stars? Little ole me?” Oh yeah!!!

I knew most of what they were rehearsing — I sang in my home church choir, Salem Baptist — and I knew a lot of the members. I was in heaven! Afterwards, Mr. Summerville reminded me that one did not have to be a member of St. Luke to sing in the choir … and I became a member! The schedule worked well for me – we practiced on Wednesdays and Saturdays; sang on 3rd and 5th Sundays. The Salem Youth Choir sang on 1st, 2nd and 4th Sundays.

We traveled extensively — including a trip to Washington, DC, where we sang in the Capitol rotunda at the request of U.S. Senator Charles Percy. We recorded a second LP, We’ve Come to Praise HIS Name. We visited tons of churches, rendering “an A & B selection”. We performed at Chanute AFB, for private and public programs, with the U of I Black Chorus, with choirs from other churches. We went to CME Conferences (did you pay your “conference claim”?)  We learned, we loved. We studied the Bible. We learned music.  He made us think we could sang … prodded and cajoled us into singing solos.  He gave us confidence.  He believed in us.

Yet, we sometimes rebelled. Some of us had problems in school or at home, some of us became young parents, some of us had some skirmishes with the law — we were far from perfect, but he wrapped us all in that agape love. We sang. We praised. We traveled. We left to go to college and the military.  We came back home.  We worshiped. And we even partied … good times with good people in Christian-centered settings. He treated all of us like we were his own. Admonished us but loved us unconditionally.

Not gonna lie, when I first heard he passed from a HS classmate, I did not — I could not — believe it. Then I started to see posts on Facebook … then a News-Gazette article.  Nooooo … it couldn’t be true.   I read all the tributes in the newspaper and on social media.  I knew he was special to me but I didn’t really know, until now, how he special was to so many others … students at both Champaign and Urbana schools; students at the U of I; other educators; elected officials; parishioners at Canaan, Morning Star Freewill and St. Luke’s who were not in the choirs; his frat brothers; other church leaders; local service organizations; and music students and music lovers across the US (so many people contacted me saying they participated in a Summerville-led workshop at one time or another).  (And in all this time I’ve known both Mr. Summerville and Mr. Griggs — who was both my elementary PE teacher then later was my HS assistant principal — I had no idea they were line brothers (Blu Phi … you know)!

At the musical Thursday (3/16) and Homegoing (3/17), I kept thinking, “Mr. Summerville would be so proud …”.

Thank you, Willie Thomas Summerville.  Thank you for helping me develop into a decent human being and Christian with a love for spiritual (and all kinds of) music. I love you!  WE love you and know you were welcomed into Heaven with open arms.

Well done, good and faithful servant. You WILL be missed

Tribute by Susan Smith Ross