I learned with sadness that my long-time friend Willie Martin died the day before Thanksgiving. While there seems no good time for a loved one to depart this earth, Willie's exit at Thanksgiving seems fitting. The Morris community can be truly thankful for the presence of this man during the past half-century and change.
Willie put "friendly" into customer service and meant it. He carried this attitude and tons of groceries to vast extremes, including once all the way across two parking lots and up the stairs to the apartment where my first wife and I lived.
As a college student in the 1960s, shopping at Willie's was a no-brainer. He treated students as valuable commodities, investments perhaps. He recognized that the teenagers and young adults passing through his check-out counters might stick around after graduation, or return, and a lot of them did. Including me. Twice. Four years after leaving UMM, I returned to fill in as the interim editor when Arnold Thompson died. Long-haired, bearded, rootless folk were no strangers to the Morris community, but could one replace a virtual institution (Arnold served as editor for 46 years) at their newspaper? Not hardly, and I'm certain my newspaper design and editorial concepts clashed with long-standing tradition.
Nevertheless, I pushed forward with some of my concepts, still uncertain of the reaction. Then, one day, while walking across his parking lot, Willie stopped me, gave me his patented smile and said, "The paper looks good. I like the changes."
Fifteen years later, again a UMM student, I approached Willie with a minor problem. I needed a place to store 100 pounds of venison for a couple of days until I could take it to my home in Canby. Willie, in the midst of remodeling and with new stock being hauled into his freezer, still found room to accommodate my needs, taking only my gratitude as payment.
Willie believed in progress. He knew that any institution or community that anchors itself too securely will not be able to adapt to the tide of change. The numerous expansions and changes in his own family business give visible testimony to his beliefs. With the help and influence of Willie's gentle influence and support, Morris moved ahead and remains a viable community.
One seldom saw Willie at city council, school board or county commissioner meetings, and to my knowledge, whenever served on any of those elective boards. But one did see Willie almost everywhere else – at Veterans organization meetings and functions, at community and church fund-raisers, at benefits for the less fortunate, as a sponsor for countless sports teams and organizations, anywhere and in any way that aided the town and its people. No doubt, countless bags of free groceries found their way into needy homes throughout his 50-plus years in business. Willie's politics were positive and grounded in the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. He gave abundantly and he received abundently....mostly the love, friendship and appreciation of his fellow citizens.
My daughter now attends UMM, and is the third generation of her family to patronize Willie's Super Valu (formerly Red Owl). She has heard the stories and knows that by stopping at Willie's, one finds far more than grocery specials.
Steve Lang, of Alpine, Texas, is the director of News and Publications at Sul Ross State University. He served as editor of the Morris Sun and Morris Tribune from 1974-79 and was also a columnist from 1987-96. He graduated from UMM in 1989.