May 15th is the day Emily Dickinson died. She hadn’t left her Amherst, Massachusetts home in twenty-one years. Perhaps it will be of some solace to struggling poets to know that scarcely ten of her poems were published in her fifty-five year lifetime, many of those altered without her permission by editors who supposedly knew better than she what the public would accept. Though Dickinson was a lifelong student of botany and an avid gardener her poetry leaned, like a gravedigger’s shovel, toward the morbid.
I have had the good fortune to encounter lifeless bodies only twice, once within the family and once as the first arrival on the scene of an auto accident. However, the older we get death has a way of sending its reminder cards more and more often.
This past week, many readers may have noticed the news story of a man arrested for the murder of Michael Williamson in Ukiah thirteen years ago. It looks odd to see the name in print as “Michael” because he was Mike or Willie to those who went to Ukiah High School with him in the early 1970s. Mike played on the 1972 North Bay League championship golf team with some very fine teammates, such as Mark Sparso, Mike Gulyash, Dave Kucz, Paul Weyland and Bo Strong. These golfers shot at par and below par, collectively, on some of the toughest golf courses in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino Counties. I don’t mean that one or two of them shot near par, I mean that the total score for their entire high school team was sometimes under par while playing competitively on difficult courses. Mike earned the nickname “Willie” for prodigiously high, hooking tee balls that reminded his teammates of the soaring drives of two other Willies in another sport, Mays and McCovey.
My last memory of Mike was playing golf with him, Mark Sparso, and Mike’s dad at the Rohnert Park golf course several years before Mike’s death. A great time was had by all, led by Mike’s ever present sense of humor. Anyone who knew Mike most likely cried when they heard he’d been killed, and many of us shed tears again this past week, but anyone who stood with him on the elevated sixth tee at Ukiah Miuni and watched one of those majestic hooks will always remember Willie smiling.
It came as no surprise that at the end of his life Mike Williamson was a mentor to others. His father was an indirect mentor to hundreds, if not thousands of students who passed through his classrooms at Ukiah High and Mendocino College. I had the incredibly good luck to be in two of Mr. Williamson’s English classes: “The Bible as Literature” and “Singing Poets.” For decades I hung on to the folder we kept during my final quarter of “Singing Poets.” In the late 1960s and early 1970s in a conservative town like Ukiah, simply the course title, “Singing Poets,” was a radical departure from the usual curriculum. A class in which we students got to listen to the Beatles, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, or Buffalo Springfield and get credit for it, are you kidding me! It felt like the revolution had come and we’d won. Of course, there were daily writing assignments, weekly quizzes, and more to keep our noses to the grindstone, but when you walked by Mr. Williamson’s class in the SEM building and heard “Get Back” on the record player it made all the other boring classes bearable. Thank you, Mr. Williamson. Thank you, thank you, thank you!