Teachers come and teachers go, but some don't.
Occasionally, a teacher like Tom Wills, who died April 24, leaves an indelible mark in the mind of a student. Only in Wills' case, the boisterous, fatherly, intimidating, devoted "Spooky" co-founder of the Clayton Arts Academy at what is now Clayton Valley Charter High School, his visionary leadership is firmly embedded with many students and admiring colleagues.
There are current academy students, like junior Kyle Metz, who caught Wills' last English class, the year before the 30-year CVHS veteran retired three years ago. "What made Wills an amazing teacher was his passion for teaching and seeing students succeed," Metz says.
And there are longtime co-workers, like choir director Elizabeth Emigh. "Tom stuck his head in my classroom one day and asked if I'd help with the musical," she recalls. "He taught me about process, not just final product. I learned to grow alongside my students."
Wills wielded his influence like a Cat in the Hat: waltzing into a person's life and charming them into unbelievable, fantastical achievements. Much of his "mischief" happened within the ClaytonArts Academy he and co-founder Aline Lee created in 1998.
Like a "school within a school," the academy was and is an integrated program revolving around an English and social studies core. Students admitted to the academy participate in an intensive visual and performing arts curriculum aimed at preparing them for the professional world.
"I can expect more from an academy kid," Wills says, in a 2007 promotional YouTube video describing the program. "The emphasis is on figure it out: how can you do it?"
As much a philosopher and sage as he was a teacher, colleagues say Wills often answered a question with a question of his own.
Former CVHS student Meg Crowel, now an assistant project manager at Lucasfilm Animation, remembers Wills' creativity and intellect. His calm, authoritative presence was sometimes interrupted by outrageous bursts of energy.
"He wore a grim reapers 'outfit' and Birkenstock sandals for almost the entirety of the spring of 1997," she remembers. "He wore chunky turquoise jewelry and once he busted out in full stage baritone voice singing "Old Man River" -- just out of the blue! His whole energy with students changed once they showed they were engaged, and he became very warm and encouraging."
What he gave was unforgettable.
"His strength, both as a teacher and a colleague, was the value he placed on questioning and exploration to develop understanding," CVCHS English teacher Kevin Cline writes in an email.
Nine-year CVCHS English teacher and 1999 academy grad Neil McChesney says it all comes back to the stage. Wills taught him how to interact, and to this day, he follows Wills' adaptation of a Sanford Meisner dictum: "Living is acting imaginatively under truthful circumstances."
"He taught me who I really am," McChesney says. "He taught me to dream about where I could go in life."
He also helped his co-workers survive staff meetings.
"During faculty meetings that were cyclical and horrible, Tom would sit there like a kid in a classroom, not paying attention," McChesney says, laughing at the memory. "After 20 minutes of nonsense, he'd come in with one sentence that would strike awe in everyone."
"One month after he retired, when I was in the hospital on emergency maternity leave, he stopped in to see me," Emigh recalls. "I was worried about my class and he just said, 'I'll do it. I'll sub.' That's Tom."
Jenny DeAngelis, a history teacher and ClaytonArts Academy's co-coordinator with Liz Abbott, says mutual respect endeared him to his students and is a large part of why she is teaching today.
"The day he died, I had four different students from various colleges come back to campus to simply just be here, cry together, tell stories about him, and be around those of us who knew him best. His Facebook page was incredible: students and alumni posted message after message thanking him and telling him what an impact he had on their lives," she says.
For a man who devoted his life to words -- and whose passing inspires a tsunami of verbal acknowledgment -- it's ironic and completely in character to find he sums up the entire legacy he leaves behind with spartan authenticity.
Closing the ClaytonArts Academy online video, Wills says, simply, "For me, it's home."
Thomas Wills of Concord
Born: Dec. 1, 1947
Died: April 24, 2013
Survivors: Wife Katie; sons JT and Kris; sisters Karen and Kathe; and brother Mike
Services: Memorial service 10:30 a.m. May 11, Mt. Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church, 55 Eckley Lane, Walnut Creek
Memorial gifts: Donations in Tom's name can be made to MDUUC Walnut Creek or the Cancer Support Community of Walnut Creek