The Willard Weatherford Project


The Willard Weatherford Project

“Come on, guys,” Brother Larmouth said, breaking into our discussion of the basketball game our team had lost the night before. “We have a service project to think about.”

Brother Larmouth leaned forward in his dark suit, placed his forearms on his knees, and held his black pocket calendar in front of him. Brother Larmouth was vice president of one of the banks in town and everything he did was always precise, proper, and meticulous. He studied his calendar a moment and then asked, “Well, men, what’s it going to be?”

The room went quiet. I always hated this part of our planning session. Service projects never were my first love. I didn’t mind doing them, but coming up with the idea was always a royal pain. They were always so much the same.

“Sister Seymour might need some help,” Brother Larmouth suggested after observing our sudden silence.

“Yeah, that sounds all right,” Chris Frei mumbled without conviction.

“She can always use some help.”

I leaned back in my chair and stretched. “The widows get all the breaks,” I muttered jokingly. “Let’s skip them this month.”

“Any suggestions, Kyle?” Brother Larmouth asked, glancing over at me and adjusting the tie that didn’t need adjusting.

I thought for a minute. “How about picking out a good widower?”

Brad and Chris began to smile while Brother Larmouth shook his head and rolled his eyes toward the ceiling.

“We could activate Willard Weatherford,” I suggested, fighting not to smile.

“Kyle, can we get back to our planning?”

“What’s wrong with Brother Weatherford?” I asked.

“Kyle, I’ve lived in the 12th Ward since I was a kid. To my knowledge Brother Weatherford has been inside this church twice during that time. Once for his wife’s funeral and the other time for a friend’s. He smokes. He cusses. For years he wouldn’t even let the home teachers inside his house. He’s been a prospective elder since I went on my mission.”

“Well, I say it’s about time we got him out to church.”

“Kyle, can we wrap this up in the next few minutes?”

“So we just write him off?”

“Kyle, he wrote himself off a long time ago.”

Because our stomachs were growling, Sister Seymour finally ended up as our service project for the month, but as I left the church and headed for home in the crisp January air, I couldn’t help thinking of Willard Weatherford and wondering what it was like to be written off by everyone.

Willard lived just five houses down from me in a modest, red brick home with a large garage to the south. He had been an auto mechanic for years, so he’d set up an auto shop in his garage to tinker in his spare time. He was a stocky, grizzly old guy with gray, short-cropped hair, a round head, and flat nose. He rarely spoke or smiled, always looking like he’d just bitten the heads off a handful of nails.

Before I went into the house that Sunday afternoon, I glanced down the street toward Brother Weatherford’s place where a few patches of old snow lingered on his lawn. His old Ford truck was parked in front and the living room drapes were pulled closed.

Mom called me in to dinner and her fried chicken, hot rolls, mashed potatoes, and cherry cheese cake made me forget all about Willard.

Four days later a winter storm moved in and dumped seven inches of snow overnight. Dad woke me up in the morning, pushed a snow shovel into my hands, and pointed me to the driveway, reminding me that I would have to hurry to make it to school on time. I grumbled most of the time but worked fast to get out of the cold. I was about to hurry into the warmth of the house to eat breakfast when I glanced down the street in Brother Weatherford’s direction. The house was dark; the snow in the driveway, undisturbed. For a moment I pondered. Then I did one of the craziest things I’d ever done in my life. I walked down the street and began pushing the snow from Brother Weatherford’s driveway.

“What you doing, boy?” a voice growled behind me when I was about half finished with the driveway.

Startled, I turned to see Willard Weatherford standing at the top of the driveway wearing a faded, grease-spotted parka. His hands were stuffed into the pockets, and his head was scrunched into the coat’s collar.

I shrugged. “Just pushing a little snow to stay in shape.” I banged the shovel on the cement and stomped my feet.

“I do my own driveway. I can’t pay you, if that’s what you’re planning.”

“Wasn’t planning on it,” I answered undaunted, returning to my shoveling.

He watched for a moment and then turned and walked into the house. I finished the driveway. Then, just to be ornery, I shoveled his sidewalk too. I suppose I was curious about him, wondered what made him tick.

“Hey, boy,” Brother Weatherford called to me from the front door as I was about to head for home. He came down the steps in a T-shirt and held three dollar bills in his hand. “This is all the change I have,” he mumbled. “I usually do my own work.”

I looked at the three dollars. “I didn’t do it for money.”

He seemed puzzled. “You Tom Jordan’s boy?”

I nodded.

“He put you up to this?”

I shook my head and muttered something about being late for school.

Three other times I cleaned off Brother Weatherford’s walk and driveway. Each time I finished he came out with a few one dollar bills and handed them to me. Each time I refused.

The last time I cleaned off his walk was the end of March after a wet snow dumped two or three inches. He came out with a 20 dollar bill.

“Take it,” he insisted, thrusting it towards me.

I laughed, shaking my head and shouldering my shovel. “I’m still trying to get myself in shape.”

Who makes you do this?” he demanded.

We stared at each other for several seconds without speaking. It was a question I had asked myself. Part of the reason went back to the fact that everyone had just crossed him off as one more negative Church statistic. Ever since that first morning I’d felt sorry for Willard Weatherford, living alone in his house, just waiting for life to run out on him. Everybody deserved more than that out of life. Chances were that the next time he went to church might be to attend his own funeral. “I guess I just figured you—” I hesitated, chewing on my lower lip. “I better get going,” I mumbled. “School, you know.”

Willard pulled out a cigarette, put it in the corner of his mouth, and lit it. He inhaled deeply, and as he exhaled he muttered, almost as though he didn’t want me to hear, “Well, thanks.”

One Saturday morning in late April the Young Men and Young Women planned a cleanup day in Sister Seymour’s yard. Brad Hunt and Chris Frei stopped by so we could walk over together. On the way I spotted Willard Weatherford in his backyard putting up a fence.

“Sister Seymour’s going to have more people than she needs,” I remarked, stopping.

“You skip out on another service project,” Chris grinned, “and Brother Larmouth will have the bishop all over you.”

“Nobody’s skipping out. We’re just changing projects. We can call Sister Seymour’s to let them know we can’t make it. Brother Weatherford needs a hand.”

“Old man Weatherford?” Brad groaned. “He wouldn’t let you help him even if you wanted to.”

I started into Willard’s yard.

“You’re not serious?” Brad called after me.

I just kept walking.

Brad and Chris hesitated a moment, but their curiosity got the better of them and they soon followed.

“Well, what do we do?” I asked jovially.

Willard looked up from the posthole he was digging. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, glancing first at me and then at Chris and Brad. “I can’t pay you anything,” he muttered.

I grabbed a shovel. “What do you want us to do?”

Things were awkward for a moment, but then Willard saw that we weren’t going to leave, so he grumbled some instructions to us and we got to work. Brad and Chris thought I was crazy at first, but they didn’t hold back. It was a bigger project than any of us had anticipated, but we stayed with it.

Willard chain-smoked most of the day and occasionally grunted instructions. Several times he told us we should go, that we’d done all that a person could expect us to do. But we stayed till the end, which was about three in the afternoon.

As we were helping Willard put the tools away, Brad announced, “Well, I better get home. I need to do some work on my car.”

“When did that old bomb of yours start working?” Chris asked.

“I didn’t say that it was working. I said that I had to work on it.”

“What kind of car do you have?” Willard asked.

“A ’67 Mercury,” Brad said sheepishly.

“The one his dad dated his mom in,” Chris kidded.

“Maybe I could look at it sometime.”

“It’s not a bad car,” Brad said.

“Yeah,” I said, “everything works but the engine.”

That evening Willard dropped by Brad’s place and towed the Mercury back to his garage.

The following day in quorum meeting, Brother Larmouth mentioned that he was sorry the three of us hadn’t been able to make it to Sister Seymour’s for the service project.

“We found another project that was more urgent,” I explained.

“Oh, really?”

“Yeah. We were helping Brother Weatherford.”

The rest of the quorum began to snicker—except for Brad and Chris. I looked around without smiling. Back in January when I had first brought Willard’s name up, I would have appreciated the chuckles because Willard was just a joke then, but the last three months had made him a person, and finally a friend. I knew then that I hadn’t skipped Sister Seymour’s service project just to do my own thing. I had been at Willard’s place because I really wanted to be there.

A week later Willard called and asked if I’d bring Chris and Brad over to his place. I was shocked. The last person I had expected to call me on the phone was Willard.

When the three of us arrived, Willard was in the garage puttering about. Brad’s car was parked in the middle of the garage. Willard reached into his pocket, pulled out Brad’s keys and tossed them to him. “See what you think.”

Brad caught the keys. “Does it work?” he asked.

Willard shrugged and turned away, going to his workbench and pushing a set of wrenches about. “Try it,” was all he said.

Slowly, Brad put the key into the ignition and turned it. The engine cranked over and began to purr.

“I don’t believe it,” Chris gasped.

“What’d you do to it?” Brad called out, stepping from the car and letting the engine idle.

Willard turned around, his face expressionless, but his eyes beamed with pleasure. “Don’t ever give up on a car like that.”

“What do I owe you? I mean—how much did all this cost?”

“Didn’t cost me a thing. Some of the wrecking yards around here owe me some favors. They coughed up the parts.”

After that it seemed that Brad, Chris, and I were always over at Willard’s. We worked in his garage, sipped sodas on his front lawn, talked baseball. We even teased him about his smoking. We told him that every time he took a drag he was throwing away 30 minutes of his life.

He chuckled and wagged his head. “I’ve been at it too long to kick it now.” But after that we noticed that when we walked up, he would flip his cigarette away.

Then one afternoon as we sat in his shop, he seemed more nervous than usual. He kept rubbing his hands on his pants, scratching the back of his neck, pacing the floor, and shuffling his feet.

“What’s on your mind, Willard?” Brad asked.

Willard shook his head. He tried to smile, but his attempt was more a grimace. He rubbed the stubble on his chin. “I chucked my smokes. I haven’t had a smoke for a couple of days. But I don’t know if I can handle it.”

For a moment the three of us were quiet. Then Chris jumped up. “You’ll make it, Willard. You just need something to take your mind off it. Do you chew gum?”

“I could chew nails.”

“You need to stay busy too,” I offered. “I have an uncle that quit. He said the only thing that saved him was to stay busy. He worked himself into exhaustion.”

For the rest of the day we stayed with Willard and pulled him through. It was almost ten when we left him, but he’d made it. As far as we knew, he never took another smoke.

“Hey, Willard, we’ve got a favor to ask,” I mentioned one afternoon as we were changing the oil in Brad’s car. “We’re in charge of a dinner over at the church this weekend.” I shrugged and felt my cheeks color. “The kids in the ward are putting on a dinner for some senior citizens. Now I don’t mean that we think you’re a senior citizen or anything like that,” I quickly added, “but we wanted you there. How about it?”

Willard looked up. His eyes went to each one of us, and then he stared down into the Mercury’s engine. For a long time he didn’t speak. Slowly he pulled a rag from his back pocket and wiped his hands. A wan smile tugged at his lips. “The last time I was in church was when Mary died. That’s been better than three years. And it was a lot longer before that. There’ve been times when I wanted to go back, but I couldn’t come up with a good enough excuse. And there’s nobody there I know.”

“You’ve got an excuse now. We’re having barbecued chicken. And you know us. We’ll be there,” I pointed out.

“Why would you want me to go to a nice, fancy dinner with you?” he asked without looking at us.

For a moment I didn’t answer, pondering the question. “Because you’re our friend,” I answered simply.

He shook his head. “I don’t know if I could. People would stare. They’d wonder why—”

“You’ll be with us,” Brad spoke up. “The whole time. Honest.”

We all waited, holding our breath. Willard thought for a long time. Finally his face softened into a smile and he said, “Well, I’ll think about it.”

The night of the dinner I was nervous. Brad had promised to pick up Willard while Chris and I helped get things ready at the church.

“Did you invite anyone tonight?” Brother Larmouth asked as I was carrying food from the kitchen to the serving table in the cultural hall.

“Willard Weatherford.”

Brother Larmouth sighed. “When are you going to get off this Willard Weatherford kick?” He smiled and shook his head. “The day you get old Willard inside this church I’ll buy you the biggest, fattest steak you’ve ever had in your life.”

Just then Chris and Brad came through the doors on the far side of the cultural hall with Willard between them. Brother Larmouth had his back to them so he didn’t see them approach until they were right there. When he turned around, he almost dropped his jaw.

“Brother Larmouth,” I started out, “I’d like you to meet a good friend of ours, Brother Weatherford.”

For a moment Brother Larmouth could hardly speak. Then he held out his hand and greeted Willard. “I’ve heard a lot about you,” he stammered. “The guys here have talked about you a lot.” He looked at the three of us and then back to Willard. “I guess I can believe everything they’ve told me.”

Willard nodded his head. “They’re good boys. I figure you can believe what they say.”

As Brad and Chris led Willard away, Brother Larmouth turned to me and muttered, “I would have never believed it. I guess I owe you a steak.”

I shook my head and swallowed back the lump in my throat. “Forget it.” I smiled. “Some things you don’t do for a steak.”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Roger Motzkus