Monk Left A Lasting Legacy

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Monk Willis would have turned 95 a few days ago. He passed away in January. His many friends — and I was privileged to be one — know that Monk is still with us, just in a different way. For those of us who loved him, Monk is ever-present, his wisdom still whispering through our thoughts, his wit and humor bringing smiles to our faces, that silly giggle he had cracking us up.We met in July 2008, about six months after I returned to run the Longview paper. Retired surgeon John Coppedge set up a lunch. I knew John from his bringing around Republican judicial candidates to the various East Texas newspapers I ran during the last couple decades. He called one day and requested I meet him at the Summit, a private dining club downtown.

Coppedge said, “There’s someone you need to get to know. He’s 92 (as Monk was at the time). He is one of the smartest people I’ve ever known, plus he’s a damn liberal like you.” We three met, Monk and I hit it off, and in the next two-and-a-half years, Monk became like a second father to me, especially after my own dad died a few months later.

I talked to one of Monk’s daughters the other day. She remarked how hard it was to go back in the house on Noel Drive and see that all the books are gone. Monk and books were so intertwined. I recall going over to his house a few weeks after that first lunch. The dining room table groaned from the weight of books clearly just purchased. Stacks of them circled both the chair in the front parlor and his recliner in the back study. You had to pick your way carefully through those rooms, narrow paths left open through piles of books. I had never seen anything quite like it. I began wondering that I would spend my dotage hemmed in by books. There are worse fates, I concluded.

That day, I asked Monk where he bought his books. He snorted and lit another cigarette. “Well, Amazon, of course. Where the hell else would I get them?”

Soon I was enlisted in helping Monk navigate that confusing online world to order more books, or print out articles that he wished to share from newspaper websites.

Monk clearly had a testy relationship with the computer that his daughters bought him. He cussed it regularly, pecked on its keyboard one finger at a time with a belligerence that just dared that machine to malfunction, clicked the mouse as if he was snapping a trap on a real rodent’s neck. He would yell at me regularly as I tried to figure out what electronic rabbit hole he had sent his website bookmarks down — as always cracking me up.

The computer for Monk was just a means to an end, a way to get more books to read, articles to peruse and disseminate. He truly was a man of letters, who could recall stanzas of poems he had memorized when Hoover was president. He once borrowed from me two volumes of Will and Ariel Durant’s “Lives of Western Civilization,” when he realized I owned a set bought at rummage sales over the years. He had been, as he put it, “thinking about the Greeks.”

We talked after he had finished reading about the Greeks, about memory and history. Monk was skeptical about accounts of events that had occurred three thousand years ago, of the level of minutiae that Herodotus and others provided. How could they possibly have remembered what happened in such detail, he asked me. Hell, you and I can’t remember where we ate lunch last week, he pointed out. I wanted to reply — but didn’t — that I could remember because we either ate at Sally’s (Man, I miss that place) or Jack’s Health Food Store, with an occasional venture to Rodriguez or Hu Pei 2. He loved Jack’s because women were constantly coming up and hugging him. One day, I was giving him the raised-eyebrow look after the fourth well-kept woman squeezed him.

“One of the few fringe benefits of being older than Methuselah,” he said, cracking that grin.

Monk to his death remained a sharer of ideas, of books and policies, politics and even sports. But he was more than that. He was a doer and a fixer, someone who was more interested in making life better for the least among us than personally enriching himself or his family. He loved politics not just because of the action, though he clearly loved that, but for what could be accomplished to make this part of our world a better place to live. I remember picking up a 4×6 snapshot of the library at North Texas on one of my first visits, which he kept on a table by the front door. In the photo, students are walking by a nondescript building with a sign out front, and you had to hold it close to read what the sign says.

I looked at Monk and asked, “They named the library for you?” Usually you have to be dead or filthy rich for that to happen with a university building these days.

“Yeah,” Monk said. “And I never gave them a damn dime, either.”

He gave far more to North Texas, of course. Eighteen years as a regent, a dozen as its chair. Monk gave of his talents, his energy, his passion and his money, until the very end.

He left his friends and family some very precious gifts. Mainly was the gift of serving others selflessly, of loving largely and with great tolerance, and of being humble. My days with Monk on this earth were not that numerous, compared to many. But the lessons I learned, the wisdom he imparted that resonates still today of an examined life, the friendship we shared, all that will remain as long as I’m around.

Looking back — which always is easier than looking forward — there seem to be three reasons God brought me back to Longview for a brief and tumultuous time. First was to be able to bring my parents home to live out their final days, to care for them until they too passed away. Second was to meet the love of my life — my wife, Julie, and our daughter, Abbie. Finally, it was to be able to share the joy of being able to call Monk Willis a friend and a mentor.

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