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Day by Day: Patiently waiting for Willis to return

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opinion River Falls,Wisconsin 54022 http://www.hudsonstarobserver.com/sites/all/themes/hudsonstarobserver_theme/images/social_default_image.png
Hudson Star Observer
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Day by Day: Patiently waiting for Willis to return
River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

I wouldn't work for free but the Star-Observer does have a fringe benefit that kind of amounts to a bonus every day, namely Willis Miller.

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I mention this because he has been absent of late, a condition that has occurred so rarely in the over 60 years he has been with the newspaper that things just seem a bit off around the place.

Willis is recovering from pneumonia at Hudson Hospital and he is making progress, but it could be quicker -- from a purely selfish point of view.

It was Willis who convinced me to apply for a job as a reporter at the newspaper 18 years ago. He told me it was the best way to learn about the community we had just made our new home, and he was right. But as much as I have learned about Hudson from the stories and interviews I've conducted over the years, I've learned an equal amount, if not more, from Willis.

The list of things begins of course with our town's history. Willis, a nearly lifelong resident who founded the St. Croix County Historical Society with Genevieve Day back in the late 1940s, is known statewide as the leading historian of the area. But as rich and precise as his command of the facts of Hudson's history is, it is the personal, sometimes intimate details he carries in his head and heart that are the real treasure.

He is one of the most skilled storytellers I have ever met, whether he's talking about one of his encounters with President Lyndon Johnson or the larger than life Charlie Ward or how he gave a Hudson boy "a little help when he needed it," the same boy who is now a very successful businessman in Germany who has always stayed in touch. Almost daily, visitors stop by his office to ask questions about a relative who lived in a Hudson, the story behind the home they just purchased, or to pay their respects to an old friend. The old friends or the children of old friends are the best.

After they leave, Willis usually has a story or two about them or what they did together. When a woman stops by, he always refers to her by her maiden name and no matter her age, from 30 to 90 plus, he refers to her as a girl, as in, "She was a Rose girl, you know." And when those women stop by, you can see some of that girl still in them as they talk with their former classmate, or employer or old friend.

Willis has written down a lot of what he knows. He has kept a personal diary since he was a very young man. He is currently working on volume 70-something, I believe, and I expect there are some pretty interesting things in those volumes. He has also published numerous books about Hudson, about the homes here and collections of his columns.

I got a call just a few days ago about one of the books that is out of print. They ended up paying for a photocopy of it from the library. And looking for information on somebody in Hudson you used to know, just stop by and it's likely that there will be a card on the person in Willis' index, a one-of-a-kind treasure trove of names and dates and everyday events about the people who are Hudson. More than anyone else in town, Willis knew these things mattered, and he cared enough to keep track of them.

But there are also a whole host of things I have learned from Willis that have nothing to do with history or newspapers, things I might have missed if I hadn't met this extraordinary man, like:

  • How to be the only person at a dry party who manages to get the hostess to serve him a Manhattan.
  • How to get a side of Martha's pickles with your half a meatloaf dinner at the Dibbo.
  • The trick to getting the most out of your wardrobe by simply wearing it until it comes back into style.
  • Learning to listen to everybody with attentiveness and respect, even when they don't deserve it.
  • And how to retire, not once or twice, but as often as necessary until you get it right.

    Willis has officially retired at least twice, maybe three times, but who's counting? The only thing we do count on is his wisdom and constant good company. So, no pressure, Willis, but hurry back. You are missed.

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    Meg Heaton
    Meg Heaton has been a reporter with the Hudson Star Observer since 1990. She has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and Native American Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
    (715) 808-8604
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