Newtown Square–"To teach is to touch a life forever," says the Hallmark cards, the coffee mugs and the inspirational framed wall hangings. It's a platitude at risk of becoming more saccharine with every utterance or would be, if not for remarkable teachers like Thom Williams.
The Marple Newtown School District legend didn't just touch the lives of countless students over his 35-year teaching career, he shaped them dramatically and unforgettably, maintaining friendships and influence long after students left his classroom. And in some cases, for decades.
When he died of complications from cancer on Dec. 19, 2010, the news spread quickly among a network of thousands of his former English and Creative Writing students, many of whom worked closely with Williams on the Marple Newtown High School (MNHS) yearbook, newspaper, literary magazine or championship chess club.
Hundreds attended the moving life celebration held Dec. 26 at the Newtown Square Presbyterian Church in Williams' honor–a packed event, despite the snowstorm raging outside.
And many more have flocked to the Celebrating Thom Williams group that former MNHS student and longtime friend Jonathan Dorf created on Facebook.
But, in true Williams fashion, with his exhortations to "do something big," Williams' students aren't content simply to share the stories, pictures, poetry and music he inspired.
With the blessing of Williams' wife, Margaret Kane Williams, they've also created the Thomas B. Williams Jr. Scholarship Fund, to benefit MNHS students for years to come.
Wall Posts Celebrate the Life of a Legend
When Los Angeles-based playwright Dorf heard the news of Williams' death, it hit him hard.
"I started working with Thom as editor of Mar News in 1987," said Dorf. "After that, I spent almost every lunch period and all my free time in the newsroom, playing chess, hanging out with Thom and all the other kids who gravitated to him. Smart kids, athletic kids, troubled kids…he brought people together who normally wouldn't be in the same room."
Dorf continued, "And it didn't matter because he had this aura of cool that would rub off on everyone. He knew how to bring out the inner rock star in anybody."
It was Williams who first encouraged Dorf to write poetry and then plays. And when Dorf graduated, they continued to collaborate, co-writing a play titled "Behind the Back Room," which was staged at Harvard University, where Dorf was a student.
Since then, Dorf has authored 25 original works, which have been performed in 10 countries. Over the years, he and Williams golfed together, attended Steely Dan concerts, recorded tracks for an EP album of original music and always, always laughed.
"When I got together with Thom, I always knew I was going to have a good time and create something," said Dorf.
Dorf started the Celebrating Thom Williams group on Facebook as a way to connect with others who shared similar memories of Williams. And the response has been overwhelming, to say the least.
Nearly 500 people have "liked" the site, which allows them to comment, post pictures, reconnect and reminisce about the "Marple Newtown icon who changed countless lives," according to the site.
The site has also served as a forum to rally support for the Thomas B. Williams Jr. Scholarship Fund. The brainchild of former students, Dawn Mitchell and Deana Travetti, the scholarship is entirely funded by donations.
It will be awarded annually to a MNHS student who "strives for excellence in the pursuit of English, writing or music, and whose positive attitude and tolerance are an inspiration to others," according to Dorf.
Memories of a Great Mentor and Friend
The traffic on the Facebook page celebrating Williams or the online guest book shouldn't come as a surprise to any of Williams' former students. Whether he was grabbing a guitar to accompany a student's poetry, writing a libretto for an opera, laying down rhymes for a class project or engaging students in online improv writing, Williams embraced creativity in all forms and media. And it definitely made an impression on generations of students.
"Mr. Williams had a way of making kids feel special," said Jessica Sekel, MNHS Class of 2002, of Conshohocken. "He always gave us nicknames. Mine was 'Haiku Shepherd' because everyone else would groan when he assigned haikus, but I would just spit them out fast."
Williams' own award-winning haiku has been printed on millions of cans of Japanese Ito En green tea.
Jenn Waymen, of Las Cruces, NM, knew Williams best as coach of the MNHS Chess Club.
"At first, it was just an excuse to do something after school for a bunch of us slackers who would get in trouble otherwise," said Wayman. "High school has a way of sucking the life out of you. Mr. Williams had a way of letting you breathe it back in and see the good around you."
"Mr. Williams wasn't just interested in the A students," said Christopher Bagnato, MNHS Class of 2001, of Newtown Square. "I was a really troubled teen. I got kicked out of another English class and ended up with Mr. Williams. At first, I thought, 'Great, someone new to fight with.' But he really took an interest in me. He sat me down and said, 'You know, you really argue well. You should be a lawyer.'"
A decade later, the former self-proclaimed trouble-maker posted this in Williams' online guest book: "Guess what, Mr. Williams...You were right. I'm now an Esquire."
Monica Rullo Bookbinder of Philadelphia actually retained a bit of high school history with her all these years through The Care and Feeding of Monica card.
"It's a little card we each made and had laminated in one of Thom's classes. A few of the points read: Monica is always late, so don't get frustrated. Monica loves to laugh and needs to do so daily. Give Monica a pen and paper and she will be happy." Bookbinder saved it for many years and eventually presented it to her husband, who now carries it with him at all times.
"I can still hear him intensely reading the words of Walt Whitman and forever inscribing the words of great poets in my brain," said Bookbinder. "His classes were the ones I looked forward to then, think about now, and will never forget. You forget many teachers over the years but not the great ones."
"Mr. Williams taught me that art is the key, that it was okay to be different, crazy, a free spirit. I wouldn't be the writer or teacher I am today without him," said James Esch, MNHS Class of 1982, of West Chester, who currently teaches English and Creative Writing at Widener University. "He introduced me to haiku, Richard Brautigan, and so much more. He jammed with our senior variety show rock band. He brought creativity to life and his influence continues to inspire."
"Thom had the greatest impact on the writer I am today," said Nate Gach, of Havertown. "His humor, his wit and his keen literary eye were unparalleled. His room in the English department at MNHS was a haven and a respite for all the insanity of high school. His love of teaching, haiku, nature, music and laughter made him an amazing mentor and most of all a man I consider a dear friend. He saw a beauty and majesty in the mundane and drew out the best in his students. His cynicism and sarcasm were always balanced with his caring and compassion."
Williams' influence was not limited to students. He shaped the lives of countless colleagues and faculty members over the years, as well.
"Thom was a wonderfully colleague and friend of mine," said Lisa D'Annunzio, a fellow English teacher at MNHS who credited Williams for shaping her own teaching methods.
"His classroom is filled with signatures, students' favorite quotes, messages to him from students, art, and witty jokes–all in permanent marker on the concrete," said D'Annunzio. "To anyone coming into the room, the writing on the wall may seem overwhelming and disorderly, but to those of us who knew Thom–were students of his or wanted to be students of his–we see that through those writings people left their mark as they grew into creative intellectuals. Thom has left his mark on our hearts and lives through our teaching, the way we treat others, and the way we strive to be life learners."
Donations to the Thomas B. Williams Jr. Scholarship Fund can be sent to the attention of Jane Coleman, Marple Newtown School District, 38 Media Line Rd., Room 204, Newtown Square, PA 19073. Be sure to specify that the funds are intended for the Thomas Williams Fund.