Charley Willis: His love of life a joy to behold

MICHAEL OLESKER

August 31, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Charley Willis had a happy fearlessness about him. If there was a cliff from which to jump, he was first in line. If there was a stranger to be embraced, he was there. Did he know what he was doing? Not always. And that was precisely what made him beautiful.

A lot of us wake up and cringe from each new day. Charley got up and danced. He plunged joyfully into life's unknowns for 21 years, until that crazed kid with a gun shot him in a Severna Park doughnut shop last week over a pen. The mind reels: Charley Willis was always the most alive kid you ever saw.

Random snapshots arrive: Charley playing ice hockey for Boys' Latin several years back. He was this skinny ninth-grader on a team of husky upperclassmen on their way to a state championship. And here was Charley, in his first intrasquad workouts, looking for the biggest, smuggest kids on the squad, so he could try to knock them off their skates.

Or Charley sitting in the high school library, where everyone bolted from the room when bees swarmed in. Charley stayed. In fact, he moved to a table where the biggest swarm of them gathered, and he sat down and stuck out his tongue and didn't move it when a bee landed on it and sat there.

In a way, he was sticking his tongue out at the world. Not in a malicious way, because this was a kid who had kindness spilling out of his pores. But at the stuff that intimidates the rest of us, Charley stuck out his tongue.

"I don't know where it came from," his mother, Barbara Willis, was saying yesterday. "He had that blithe spirit that gets hammered out of most people. He never lost it."

She said she and her husband, Richard, have been watching old home movies of Charley growing up. There's a shot where a bunch of kids are scared about jumping off a cliff. Charley barrels through, but instead of jumping, he dives head-first.

"He had no fear of anything," his mother said. "I don't know if he thought bad things don't happen to people, but he never was intimidated. And he never got injured."

She remembered the family on a subway in Washington one time, where Charley sat next to maybe the grungiest-looking guy in North America.

"Oh, those are great looking boots," Charley said, and kept chattering away.

His parents held their breath. When they left the train, his mother said, "Charley, you can't do that."

"Mom," said Charley, "he was a very nice man."

He was a kid back then, about 11. But he held onto that gregarious embrace of the entire available world, and it never seemed to occur to him to be intimidated.

"That's what we're all trying to hold on to," his mother said, "that sense of optimism, of going on when things are rough. Today, people are taught to fit into a mold. Charley didn't fit anybody's mold but his own."

It surely never occurred to him to be frightened last week, when the troubled Thomas Cummings asked to borrow his pen. Charley said sure. Cummings returned it, then asked for it again. No problem. Then Cummings said he wanted to buy it. Charley said no, the pen had sentimental value.

So Cummings pulled out a 9-mm Browning semiautomatic and shot him 10 times, got into his car and drove off, and later shot himself.

"I'm thinking about that poor boy's parents," Barbara Willis said yesterday. "As terrible as our grief is, theirs must be a thousand times worse."

About 800 people showed up for a memorial service over the weekend, many of them friends of Charley's who said he'd taught them to reach for things they might have feared. It wasn't that he preached; he just went ahead and did what felt like fun, and freed others' spirits in the process.

At Boys' Latin, where big guys sometimes took delight in picking on easy marks, Charley saw them toss somebody's sneakers atop the gymnasium roof. He climbed up and got the sneakers back for the kid -- and got detention for doing it.

But that was Charley: Reaching up to places that frightened others, but never himself.

At his memorial service, a minister at Woods Memorial Church who'd known him smiled and said, "Most of the time we kept saying, 'Get down, Charley.' "

"Now," his mother was saying yesterday, "he's up there, and we don't have to say it any more."

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