PEORIA — Family and friends said goodbye to Willie York on Monday just like the voluble vagabond lived his unique life: with plenty of smiles and laughter.
Peoria's self-styled ambassador of the streets, 74-year-old York died Jan. 23 while in hospice care in Peoria for multiple ailments. Monday, more than 100 visitors — including members of a military honor guard acknowledging York's Army service — assembled to packed his memorial service at T.W. Parks Colonial Chapel
Much like the unpredictable York, the service included a mix of Willie-esque encouragement and observations, including the Bible (1 Samuel 16:7: "The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”) and Frank Sinatra ("My Way": "I faced it all and I stood tall. And did it my way."). Meanwhile, a series of speakers commented on York's upbeat grin (which he boisterously shared in public) and his gentle generosity (which he quietly displayed in private).
"God knows your heart," said the Rev. William McGee, an in-law to the York clan. "I'd look at Willie, and I knew he had a good heart."
As remembered at the service, York would donate his doodles for auction, with proceeds donated to charities that helped sick children and homeless people. His nephew, LaMarr Anderson, urged the gathering to continue York's spirit of helping others.
"For all of you who see people on the streets who don't have what you have, that's how to acknowledge my uncle," LaMar Anderson said. " ... Invest in this community."
As the occasional newspaper chronicler of Willie's life, I also was asked to offer a few words. Well, I offered more than a few. Here they are:
"I wear a tie about as much as Willie did. Of course, Willie did have some really interesting neckwear, though his was a little different than mine. His had a few more bones.
"Regardless, if Willie were here, he’d probably smile and say, “Pheel, whadya doan in dat tie?” He knew me, and he knew I didn't often wear a tie. But regardless of what I’d be wearing, or what Willie would be wearing, or what we’d be talking about, Willie surely would be smiling. Because, just about always, he was smiling.
"That’s the thing I’ve always thought when someone would mention Willie: his smile. Because I’ve written about Willie in the newspaper, people often would ask me what he was up to, then they’d share a story about him. Often, those stories would be about Willie clowning around: he enjoyed goofing around with people on the streets, whether they liked to or not. And that’s the Willie much of Peoria will remember about him — for better or worse, but mostly for the better.
"Willie once told me, “I like this town. But this town don't always like me.” Actually, most of Peoria felt fond of Willie. People say Willie added color to Peoria, and he certainly did. But I don’t think that’s what endeared Willie to people. Not at the core.
"See, Willie lived life on his own terms — wigwams, cat bones and whatnot, each one a symbol of his idea of freedom. It was a life that most of us wouldn’t choose. But at least some of us admired Willie for his sheer honesty. What you saw was what you got. And Willie just had his own way of doing things. For a lot of us, as we’d trudge through a 9-to-5 day, we’d catch a glimpse of Willie Downtown and share a wave — and more than once I’d think, “Man, that guy seems to be enjoying life a lot more than I do. He seems a lot more carefree than most of us.” And, in that way, we envied Willie, appreciated Willie.
"When I do speaking engagements, people sometimes ask, “Tell us some Willie York stories.” The thing is, I don’t really have any — not long stories about him, just glimpses at his special way of doing things. I remember years and years ago in Southtown, when I was checking on Willie, just because I hadn't seen him in a while. But I couldn’t find him in any of his usual teepees or other lean-tos. Suddenly, from below, I heard, “Hey, Pheel!” Now, you ever hear a surprise voice from above, and you stop in your tracks, and the hair stands up on the back of your neck, and you think, “Could that be God calling me home?” It’s a little alarming. But I tell you, if you hear a voice from below, it’s a lot alarming — especially when you look down and the voice is coming from a fellow in a devil outfit.
"Indeed, it was Willie, in a storm sewer, yelling up through a grate. I said, “Willie, what are you doing down there?” He yelled back, “Livin’!” Apparently, the city was in the midst of one of its periodic sweeps of squatters on city property, so Willie was lying low — really low. So he was doing what he always did — livin’, the best way he knew how.
"And he always had time to stop and chat, something many of us don’t always do in our busy lives. Too busy. But not Willie. He was making connections. And many times — and I know this, because people have told me these stories — Willie played the helper, offering food or encouragement or whatever else someone needed. Most of Peoria didn’t see that side of Willie. But he often was kind and thoughtful and — though this might seem hard to imagine with a guy who’d wear war paint and animal bones — gentle. Really gentle.
"In more recent times, what with Willie off the streets, our conversations got more reflective. Sure, he’d talk about crazy memories about Peoria, or the ghostesses — that’s what he called ghosts: ghostesses — he had seen. But he also would talk about the Bible and his favorite passages about Jesus. And at those moments, I would just marvel at Willie. We all have different facets to our lives — as they say, people are kind of like onions, with layers upon layers that can be peeled back. And I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone with more layers than Willie.
"But my favorite layer was the one on top, the one with the smile. I was always happy to see him, because he was always happy to see me. I’m not unique there. For a lot of people, they’d stop and talk to Willie — or wave, or honk their horn — because he was always happy to see you.
"I don’t know a lot of people like that. They simply take the time to stop and say hi, and it lifts you up, gives you a smile. I’m not sure if Willie knew he had that rare gift, a gift that he so often shared with Peoria: a smile and a good word. Peoria could use a lot more of that. Peoria could use more Willie Yorks: more authenticity and more smiles.
"I’m going to miss Willie. Peoria is going to miss Willie. You’re going to miss Willie. But my guess is, when you think of him, you’re going to smile. Just a suggestion: When that happens, share that smile. That’s what Willie would do: Share a smile.
"Thanks, Willie. Thanks, friend."
PHIL LUCIANO is a Journal Star columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com, facebook.com/philluciano and (309) 686-3155. Follow him on Twitter.com/LucianoPhil.
I faced it all and I stood tall
And did it my way