A teacher, a death, a lasting impact

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I never met Mike Williams, the Jordan-Matthews teacher who was killed in a car accident just before Thanksgiving. We learned about his death from Nancy Wykle, the public information officer for Chatham County Schools, who told us on Monday he was an outstanding teacher, truly and genuinely beloved by students and staff.

For me, reading about Mike and his impact at J-M brought back memories of the tragic accidental death of another educator, one I knew — Mrs. Watson, my 2nd-grade teacher at what was then St. Clair Elementary School in Sanford.

Some of the details of the day she died have been lost to the fog of my 58 years, but other things are crystal clear: the morning bell ringing that day with my classmates and me sitting there in her cheery classroom, wondering where Mrs. Watson was. The anxiousness we felt, looking at each other and wondering what to do as the minutes slowly ticked by. Three of us boys finally deciding to leave the room (a brazen move for me, then a 7-year-old) to search for her, without success. Her white Volkswagen Beetle — why I knew what she drove, I can’t fathom — not being among the cars in the school’s small parking lot. Our principal corralling me, as I wandered in the hallways, back into class. Being told that we’d have a substitute that day because Mrs. Watson was sick.

I recall the rest of the day as a confusing one. There seemed to be a pall over things — the other kids, the school; the cafeteria was especially quiet that day — but I don’t remember any particular worry on my part. Surely, I remember thinking, our teacher would feel better and be back tomorrow.

But at day’s end, our principal came back to tell our class the news that we later learned all the other students already knew: our Mrs. Watson was killed in a car accident on the way to school.

As a 2nd-grader, death was a distant and ambiguous concept for me. My recollection — and this may not be accurate — was that, at the telling of the horrible news, all the girls in my class cried and none of the boys did. I remember observing that and thinking: what a curious thing. I also remember thinking: until now, I’d never talked to a person, in person, who ended up dead.

I also remember feeling sadness: a teacher I’d come to adore was hurt badly enough that she died, and that was so unfair, and that I’d miss her smile and what I liked most about her: the effervescence and tender nature she possessed that destined her for an elementary classroom.

Many years later, my mother told me she heard Mrs. Watson swerved to miss a dog in the road. That’s what led to the accident: an act of compassion.

It’s easy to say now, in the kind of idealistic memorialization that follows an untimely death, that Mrs. Watson was my favorite teacher. The reality is we only had her for a couple of months before the accident occurred, and I have vivid recollections of only one brief conversation with her. I didn’t know until many years later — when I sought out the story of her death in dusty newspaper archives — that Mrs. Watson was the first teacher of color in our school and one of the first Black elementary school teachers in all of Lee County.

I do know, unequivocally, though, that she was special: sweet-natured, gentle, reassuring, patient. Her eyes would sparkle when we learned something, and she absolutely beamed when we were engaged together as a class.

I suspect it was probably the same with Mike Williams. My friend Rose Pate, who worked with Mike at Jordan-Matthews, told me he was “one of the most decent human beings I’ve ever known.” Other colleagues described him as a mentor, eager to volunteer at the school and provide a listening ear, saying “the ripple effects of his efforts will be felt for years to come.”

I can believe it. No, I didn’t know Mike. But here’s what I also believe: a half century from now, scores of graying J-M graduates will still be talking about him, and they’ll be better because he was, for even a short time, their teacher.

A memorial service for Williams will be held at 5:30 p.m. Friday in J-M’s auditorium in Siler City.

Bill Horner III can be reached at bhorner3@chathamnr.com or @billthethird.

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