THE OHIO UNION — The Buckeyes were playing Penn State on the big screen.
Chicken fingers, shrimp fried rice and banana pudding were on the menu. Family and friends smiled as they scratched off complimentary lottery tickets and answered Ohio State trivia questions.
And … after a nearly two-year delay imposed by COVID, Jim Ferrell wrapped his arms around the wife of the dear friend he made 54 years ago in a dormitory at Bowling Green State University and cried like a baby.
The Oct. 29 Celebration of the Life of Springfielder Willie J. Young Sr. — who was 71 when COVID took him just before Thanksgiving 2020 — could only have been better the Kool and the Gang had been playing their famed Celebration beneath the blue fall sky.
Much of the party took place in the Office for Off-Campus and Commuter Student Engagement posthumously now named for Young, who led it for 22 years.
Just before the celebration, a Great Lakes regional organization he’d belonged to created the annual Willie J. Young Sr. Commitment to Inclusion and Equity Award to honor an “institution or individual that has implemented an innovated approach to enhancing diversity, awareness, understanding and education.”
“He was so seasoned – very dedicated – you could depend on him,” said Rose Wilson-Hill, who retired after 50 years of service at the Ohio State University and served with Young on committees of professional organizations.
“If he told you he was going to be there, he would be there.”
And when he was with Wilson-Hill, he called her Stella Lena, the nicknamed he coined after a university visitor called her Ohio State’s Lena Horne.
Young’s wife, son and in-laws called him Worldwide for the range of his trivia knowledge and his connections.
But he was just as dependable in his role as “Uncle Ice Man” to Alicia “Sissy” Thomas, her brother and numerous cousins.
In a large family in which some uncle and aunts connected with children and some didn’t, Thomas said, “He was always reaching out and seeing how we were doing.”
After becoming the first in the family to earn a college degree, “he was that somebody” responsible for Thomas and a lot of her cousins following suit.
And when Sissy and her brother were young, Uncle Ice Man took them on vacations they wouldn’t have had if not for him.
The same uncle’s incredible memory and penchant for caring demonstrated itself 40 years later when he not only was able to recall the name of a child who happened to be in one of the vacation pictures they stumbled across but to update her on his status because he’d stayed in touch with him.
“Whoever he met in life, he never forgot that person,” Thomas said. “He never forgot a place and a name.”
Nor a number, says retired Cleveland police officer “Hel” Parries, who went to Shaker Heights High School with Pam Young.
Parries said every time her address, birthday or badge number came up in the Ohio Lottery, “he would give me a call.”
She would respond by saying “leave my numbers alone,” she said, which is why she smiled when she collected her complimentary scratch-off card at the party.
Young’s fun-loving playfulness was also hard-wired in the process by which Michael Byrd and so many others quickly went from being employee to friend to family.
Young put a cherry on top of all that when he gave Byrd, his secretary while at Wilberforce University, the nickname Rollo after a character on Sanford and Son. Byrd returned the favor by calling him Shady Grady, another.
This eventually led Byrd and friend Jeff King to celebrate Young’s birthday by giving him a bogus Jackie Robinson autographed baseball with the name misspelled so as to reproduce the birthday gift Fred Sanford was given on a memorable episode.
Still, Byrd rarely called him anything but Mr. Young.
“I was in the military for 8 years and I had to ‘yes sir, no sir,’ to people I didn’t know,” he explained. “Why not give a man I had feelings for the respect and love he deserved?”
Young also became another son to his mother-in-law Julia Cross and a tennis teacher to his sister-in-law, Rhonda Cross Mangham. He also boosted her confidence by calling her Cool Rhonda Joan and teased her about her cooking by inviting her to bring store-bought bread to any occasion.
But then, Young tended to be a protective Big Brother to all.
Nasrin Javid experienced the day the two of them came across a man carrying a cross and at the corner of High and Broad Streets and protesting against Democrats. After she told the protester, “Sweetie, I’m one of the evil ones,” Young “held my hand and dragged me away,” mumbling something about her mouth getting her into trouble, Javid said.
Sara Zulch-Smith, who had already developed a deep friendship Young over years of her work in alumni relations and development at Bowling Green, said that when her daughter went to Ohio State, Young “kept an eye out for her.”
She and husband Dean felt particularly reassured when, during an area tour, Young drove through an off-campus alley and told their daughter: “I’m showing you this because I don’t want you to ever walk down here at night or alone. This alley, you just don’t do.”
Springfielder Lori Clark, who worked with Pam Young at Snowhill Elementary, saw the same protective spirit at work on a community level when Willie Sr. treated her to an Ohio State football game, and she went on campus rounds with him before and after the game.
Young knew not only an inordinate number of students, but landlords and others of the campus community, connections he used to try to “ease the way” for all involved Clark said.
What wasn’t easy for the Zulch-Smiths was when their close friend happened to die on their son’s birthday.
“At first I was heartbroken” by the coincidence, Sara said. “That was l like my immediate reaction.”
“And then, I kind of was like, maybe that’s Willie’s way of gifting some of himself to Ethan, and I do see so much kindness in him.”
“I decided I’d go with that.”
It’s the kind of compliment that might make Young Sr. feel like he hit the lottery.
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