The real Willie Mays

“It’s not cool to be black, white, Jewish, or Italian. It’s just cool to be alive, to be around.” –Willie Mays, Class of 1982 (1963-2012) Ben Kramer ’12, with the help of the Elder family and community In 1980, Willie Mays was called upon by his classmates to lead the student body of Elder High School at a traditional pep rally in the horse shoe of “The Pit”. Being a junior at the time, he was admittedly nervous, but promptly picked up a megaphone and inspired the students to cheer at the top of their lungs. He called for silence, and began a lifelong tradition that we will never forget. Willie dropped his megaphone and the student body answered with a loud “E”. He was startled at the echoing response from the building, and followed with a slow “L-D-E-R”. After that very day, the slow “E-L-D-E-R” cheer became a staple in Elder’s tradition, and Willie became the foundation for the pride and unity of his class. On Saturday, May 12th, Willie passed away from multiple heart complications at the young age of 48. He had been staying at a nursing home, where his sister Johnnie, along with other Elder grads, regularly visited him. Although Willie wasn’t in the best shape, he still managed to keep a smile on his face whenever a visitor came. Mr. Ploehs remembers Willie as “an engaging personality, who walked the halls of Elder with a sort of welcoming swagger and a kind word for everyone he passed, or stopped to talk with.” In the halls, Willie stood out because of his enormous stature and his perpetuating smile. And during Friday night football games, he stood out just the same when the cheering section would shout his name “WILLIE” to lead the ordinary repertoire of cheers. The class of 1982, along with the rest of the Elder community that knew him, is truly saddened by the loss of their brother. Stories have been circulating as many of his former classmates are mourning his loss. Jeff Lanzilotta (class of ‘82) accounts his fondest memories of Willie saying: “[My] most vivid memory is how he’d make Mrs. Imhoff (the first ever female teacher at Elder) blush by showing her the ‘black hole’, which was of course, pulling up his shirt and showing his bellybutton.” Other memories also include his famous helicopter ride into “The Pit” for a Moeller pep rally where he delivered the game ball. But no memory of Willie will ever surpass that of his image. His smile will forever be burned into the hearts of the students and teachers who had the pleasure of knowing him. A Quill article from 1980 explains how Willie came to Elder his junior year after transferring from St. X. Everyone knew that Willie came from a completely separate background than their own, but still accepted him into the family regardless. After his first days at Elder, the whole school knew him by name, and since then he has been known as an “icon” of the Elder community. Willie was quite different from the typical Elder student; his size, the color of his skin, and of course, the smile that no one could match. But Elder released the prejudices that still remained in the 80’s, and completely forgot about everything that made Willie different. His uniqueness was instead embraced as a thing of beauty. And for that, Willie’s sister Johnnie said to the Elder community as a whole, “I love each and every one of you guys, because you showered my brother with a love that only Elder could give.” At the beginning of each school year, the seniors lead the very same cheer that Willie made famous. As each letter echoes off the building…“E-L-D-E-R”…we boast at how Elder gives back whatever you put into it. Since Willie attended Elder, he has spent his life embodying the true “Elder Man”. Now it is time for us to do the same. Everything Willie did was purple. To sum up the relationship between Willie and the greatest high school on the planet, Mr. Ploehs commented saying, “All have heard it said that Elder is more than class, color or creed. Willie Mays and his relationship to the Elder community were living proof that Elder is truly a way of life built on the values that Christ taught and lived.” In the 1982 edition of the Elderado yearbook, Willie’s picture is found on page 4. He is preparing his cheerleading costume for a routine football game. Surrounding his picture are the words, “…Pride, which enables us to hold our head high in times of sorrow or defeat…Unity, which results in everlasting friendships…” Most of us boast having this sense of Pride and Unity, but Willie defined it. Rest in peace, Willie. Just as Elder will remain in your heart, you will remain in ours.