The door to a future outside of a steel mill was opened to him the day an insurance agent stopped at the Young home carrying a football bearing the name of Bowling Green State University. Although he never played at Bowling Green, the university showed him a new world.
“He told the story of going to college and being excited to have his own bed, his own room, his own space,” said Pamela Cross Young, his wife of 45 years.
The first of his family to pursue a higher education, he did so with “a determination to do the best he (could) and make sure his best (was) yet better than what he had known.”
He also did so largely without the support of his mother, who died while he was in high school, and his father, who died when Young was a sophomore at Bowling Green.
Young always remained grateful to the university for its support and was named one of the school’s 100 top alums of all time. This fall, he returned to observe his 51st consecutive homecoming on the date it was to have been held.
College and lifetime friend Robert “Beep” Horne, said that despite being raised in a tough Cleveland neighborhood, Young didn’t have a trace of anger that so often goes with that.
“He was just a gentle giant and, at the same time, funny as can be.”
Those two attributes came with “just phenomenal social skills” that Horne saw on display years later when the two were in a Chicago restaurant at the moment Muhammed Ali entered.
In a note delivered by a waiter, Young asked whether the mountain might come to Muhammed, which landed the friends a 10-minute conversation with the heavyweight champion of the world and a lifelong memory.
By contrast, Mrs. Young reported that she first met her future husband at Bowling Green on a day when he almost crashed into her with his bicycle.
Saying “I never knew my dad to be clumsy,” their son, 32-year-old Willie Young, Jr., argues that his father orchestrated the whole thing.
Young earned a master’s degree at Bowling Green in student services, the non-academic side of higher education. He went on to work at Defiance College, Mansfield State University of Pennsylvania, then Wittenberg and Wilberforce universities before landing at Ohio State in 1990.
By the time he was promoted to senior director of Off Campus and Commuter Services eight years later, he was known for two mantras:
1. Where you have people, you’re going to have problems, but you also have potential.
2. Every flower doesn’t bloom on the first day of spring.
Both speak to the patience that undergirded Young’s philosophy working with students, an approach praised by James L. Moore III, Ohio State’s vice provost for diversity and inclusion.
“Mr. Young chose education and guidance of young people over punishment and abandonment. He understood well that young people learn life’s lessons at their own pace.”
Tracy Stuck, OSU’s assistant vice president for student life, said that Young’s effectiveness also involved a change of pace he brought to university life.
“In a world where we’re always planning ahead and moving fast, Willie could just be in the moment with people. You always felt you were the most important person in that moment,” she said, “and that’s just such a gift.”
Indeed, Young Jr. counts as his favorite memories of his father involved “just the conversations.
“He could literally talk about anything – ballet, sports, history philosophy. But I think my father always treated everybody with dignity.”
Although working with him for 26 years, Stuck said she did not appreciate him fully until this fall, when they traveled the campus encouraging students to protect themselves from Covid-19.
“He was like the mayor of our university district,” she said.
He helped a student with a broken computer get a replacement. He managed to have a cardboard cutout of a special needs child from Springfield relocated in Ohio Stadium so it would show up more often on television. He helped a student who had been incarcerated secure housing.
In a condolence note, to the Young family, OSU graduate Dan Clougherty said Young came to his side when, while trying to rebuild his GPA in 2010, Clougherty suffered a collapsed lung.
Young helped get the word out to professors who canceled or postponed Clougherty’s final exams. The assistance “kept me in school and allowed me to eventually graduate,” Clougherty wrote. “And I’m sure thousands of students owe so much to his kindness and hard work.”
Young Jr., now program coordinator at OSU’s Younkin School of Success, said his father could do all this because he knew, by name, 700 to 1,000 people in the university community. The same mind that provided impromptu trivia games over the years for alumni riding on buses to bowl games also stored important data on the people he saw each day – their birthdays, anniversaries, hometowns. His father sometimes supplemented the data by inventing nicknames.
The result, his son said, is that his father was “just kind of a Swiss Army knife for any university.”
And, when it was required, he added, his father could pull out “set them straight” tool, make some adjustments, then be sure to look after the students later.
Rose Wilson-Hill, director of administration and special programs at Ohio State, also saw the “very serious side” of Young, Sr.
“He was a critical thinker, a strategic thinker. And if you didn’t want to hear it, don’t ask him, because he’s going to tell you exactly what he’s thinking.” But she said Young managed to do that diplomatically enough that, instead of eliciting anger, “it made you have a second thought.”
This ambassadorial skill also helped the university’s relations with the Columbus community, as was apparent from comments Stacia Eckenwiler, a project manager for the Columbus Department of Utilities, added to the OSU tribute.
“Willie reminded all of us – students and faculty and everyone else alike – that we were all part of a community and that what we did and who we are, just, it mattered.”
Contributions to his Springfield community included involvement in the Springfield Civic Theater, Habitat for Humanity and St. Raphael Catholic Church, where a mass was held for him a week ago Saturday.
The service was given its shape by parishioner Lou Ann Horstman, who said that, after Young’s passing, the words from “When a great tree falls,” a Maya Angelou poem “kept coming back to me.”
“If ever there was a great tree, it was Willie,” she said, supporting a whole community of people through his humor; teaching young drivers to operate a car with a stick shift; and acting with habitual kindness.
“Every time we crossed the (church) parking lot, he would talk to which of my kids was with me – recognizing them, calling them by name and showing that he cared.”
“It’s hard to think of him as gone,” said Blontas Winkie Mitchell, who was Young’s godparent when he converted to Catholicism and was baptized in 1979.
“It’s hard to think of most people” in that way, she added, “but he had a presence, a big presence” – a kind the poem says cause those who have known big trees to hear whispers after they fall: “We can be. Be and be better. For they existed.”
Memorial donations can be made to Second Harvest Food Bank, or Habitat for Humanity.