On February 18, 2016, the Liberty Bank Foundation lost one of its best friends. Willard McRae, a director of the foundation since its inception in 1997, passed away that day after a two-year battle with cancer.
Willard’s impact on our foundation was immeasurable and indelible. His dogged determination to do whatever it takes to open up opportunities for low-income families is reflected in our mission, our funding priorities, and our grantmaking.
Willard embodied the perfect combination of a soft heart and a hard head. His instinct to help was always balanced by his good sense. I can hear his voice in my head from a dozen different meetings, asking, “How are these kids going to be better off because of this program?” Willard regarded every grant as an investment, and he wanted a return: kids who earned better grades in school, or gained confidence and self-esteem, or learned employment skills. Parents who found better jobs, or safe, decent housing.
With Willard, it was all about the results. He would champion anyone who was willing to put in the effort to achieve their potential.
Several years ago, I was asked by Liberty’s CEO and Chairman to think of how the bank might honor Willard for his decades of service to the bank, the foundation, and the community. My first idea was, “Let’s give Willard the Liberty Bank Community Diversity Award.” Willard certainly exemplified the type of person the award was created to honor. But then I had the real brainstorm: “Let’s name it after Willard from now on.”
That was the start of a conspiracy. We knew we couldn’t keep Willard from knowing he would be receiving the award. This guy knew every single person in Middletown, and plenty of others beyond. But we could, and did, keep him from finding out our plans to rename it for him. We called his wife, Kathy, and swore her to secrecy. Only a handful of us knew the plan.
On the evening of the award presentation, there must have been 400 of Willard’s friends, family, and supporters at St. Clement’s Castle for the event. I remember sitting off the the side of the stage listening to Chandler Howard presenting the award to Willard—and then making the statement, “This will be the last time we present the Liberty Bank Community Diversity Award.” There was a collective gasp from the crowd. Chandler went on: “…because from now on, we’re going to call it the Willard M. McRae Community Diversity Award.”
The crowd erupted in applause and cheers. I almost didn’t notice, because my eyes were on Willard. The look he gave me was priceless. I’d never seen him so totally gobsmacked. It remains one of my favorite moments of my 18-year career at Liberty: the night we sandbagged Willard McRae, the man who always knew everything that was going on in town.
It’s hard to find words to describe how much we’ll miss Willard. We have a foundation board meeting coming up next week, and we will all keenly feel his absence. But his dedication to making life better for people will still imbue our decisions. We’ll still hear his laugh–heh-heh-heh–echoing in the room. We’ll put the plate of oatmeal raisin cookies in front of his favorite chair. And then we’ll get on with our work. That’s how he would want it.
Click HERE for the Hartford Courant article.
Click HERE for the Middletown Press article.
Click HERE for Willard’s obituary.