An Honor Well Deserved

A man whom I’ve known and loved for many years received a well-deserved and long overdue honor last night. Willard McRae was one of the people responsible for my getting my first full-time job, at the Middletown Press. He also engineered scholarship money for me when I went to law school. I was just one of thousands of young people he has helped and mentored over the years.

Willard has also been a member of the Middletown City Council, head of the out-patient mental health clinic at Middlesex Hospital, the first African American to chair the board of directors of Liberty Bank.

The bank choose to honor him last night with its community diversity award – and four hundred people showed up to help celebrate at gorgeous St. Clements Castle. Former state Sen. Biagio “Billy” Ciotto, who now works for Congressman John Larson, led off the presentations with a citation from the congressman. Ciotto said he had retired – he figured at age 77 he deserved a rest. When Larson asked him to come to work, Ciotto said he’d have to check with his wife. Larson replied, “I already have. She wants you out of the house.”

Folks from the state legislature also issued proclamations, and people who knew Willard in his capacity as a champion of education and as a dedicated social work administrator  talked of his many achievements in those fields. Sebastian Giuliano, the mayor of Middletown, praised his fellow Republican (though no one mentioned politics). He corrected a couple of his fellow speakers, who said “here in Middletown,” reminding the audience that we were across the river in Portland, “where I have no jurisdiction.”

Everything about the evening glowed, as if the guest of honor had lent his special charisma to the event. St. Clements [why is there no apostrophe in the name?] is exquisite. Despite the fog and drizzle the flowers leapt out with their reds and yellows, even the late roses by the door. The inside of the place, which is huge, features cranberry glass behind one of the (three) bars – and a replica of a stable with horse statues behind a paddock. They were a bit scary looking the first time I encountered them. Interior courtyards captured more greenery and flowers. The only thing I missed, because it was too foggy was what must be a spectacular view of “my” river. I consider it mine since I’ve lived in five towns along its shore.

The food, which was spread out over two rooms, featured a raw bar with oysters and clams on the half-shell as well as shrimp (cooked), a meat station with chicken, pork, ribs, as well as squash, cornbread, rolls, and so forth. A pasta station offered penne marinara with julienned zucchini and summer squash and a bow tie pasta alfredo with pancetta and peas, accompanied by salad and garlic bread.

I didn’t eat as much as I had intended because I was too busy talking to people I hadn’t seen in ages. Willard’s daughters flew in as a surprise, one from Savannah, Georgia and the other from Jackson, Mississippi. My dear friend Barbara Ann Davison arrived from Columbia, S.C., and Larry’s sister flew up from Columbus, Ga. (I wish these places had settled on either Columbia or Columbus because I have to stop and think which one is in Georgia, which one is in South Carolina, and which one is in Ohio. Oh, and there’s a Columbia, Connecticut, but I don’t think I’ve ever had occasion to write it before.) Friends and neighbors I’ve seen more recently gathered round as well. It was just a terrific evening in honor of a man who deserves the award and much, much more.

Over the years people have asked Willard to run for mayor of Middletown but he has always declined. When asked why, he said he used to travel with a former mayor and saw that the man was tethered to not one, not two, but three pagers, including one in case the nearby nuclear power plant (now decommissioned) went China Syndrome. Willard said he wanted to be free to hop in the car to go visit his grandson, who was then living in Texas, and those pagers would have kept him tied to home.

Though the city never benefited from his wisdom as mayor, we have all gained in myriad other ways as he and his wife Kathy nurtured and counseled hundreds of young people and sent them out into the world to help the rest of us. One of the things that Willard excels at is giving away money. The folks at Liberty Bank noted that he was the only one on the scholarship committee who read every single one of the applications and guided the committee in choosing the recipients. He retired from regular employment a number of years ago but told me the other day he had put in a twelve-hour day. My response, “Willard, that’s a full-time job, plus a part-time one! You’re working harder now than when you were getting paid!”

Willard’s speech, typical of him, was deprecating and funny. He acknowledged his fealty to Middletown by saying that his wife claims that when he drives over the Portland bridge, he gets a nose bleed. And he said that people had called him a “go-to” guy. He said, “Yeah, when people ask me a question, I go to you,” pointing at the audience. He acknowledged a great many people who had inspired him along the way, including his departed friend Wesleyan Dean Edgar Beckham, who now has a gorgeous building named after him.

The evening seemed complete at that point, but another surprise awaited. The bank retired the name Community Diversity Award. From now on it will be the Willard M. McRae Community Diversity Award. I cried when they unveiled the new banner. And today the city of Middletown is celebrating Willard M. McRae Day, as declared by the mayor.

Until recently, if one Googled Willard’s name, the first hit was the New York Times account of a wedding he performed in August 2008. (That should change with the creation of the Willard M. McRae Community Diversity Award.

I got all the way to the end of this tribute and neglected to mention the most important fact: He’s Larry’s uncle.

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2 Responses to “An Honor Well Deserved”

  1. LORRAINE Says:

    Thanks Liz for capturing the event. It was truly an enchanted evening.
    Great seeing you.

  2. Wins and Woes « Lizr128′s Blog Says:

    […] lifetime achievement award. And while this event wasn’t as mobbed as the Liberty Bank tribute (“An Honor Well Deserved”) two years ago, the enthusiasm was just as great and the appreciation just as heartfelt. […]

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