Editor’s Pick
APRIL 29, 2011 10:54AM

When the Wig Falls Off

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A city generally benefits from a few flamboyants and in this way, my hometown of Lenoir, NC, was especially fortunate. A city of only about 17,000, Lenoir made a welcome home to all sorts of eccentrics. A typical example was Sadie, a revered Southern lady who’s eyesight began failing long before anyone could summon the courage to suggest she stop driving. But we all recognized her car and so drivers simply pulled to the shoulder as she drove straight down the middle, on top of the yellow line. But of these many fantastic souls, there was one in particular who loomed especially large — Willard.

Seeing Willard was something. Something to talk about and most certainly to be remembered. When he showed up, he could be just about anything — a Convict, General Patton, Wonder Woman — and anywhere — atop a billboard with his red Superman Cape flapping in the wind or at the local movie theater disguised, just as ET on the screen, in a hooded parka and gloves, this despite the sweltering heat of a Southern summer. Willard was, as I heard it described so often, “Diff’rent.”

Willard’s mother used to make his costumes for him. These were wonderful and included crafty renditions of Elvis, Tarzan, an Indian Chief and more. He paraded them around town in a slow stroll along Harper Avenue or through the aisles of the local drug store. And there was a time he was married and his wife, right by his side, joined in, dressed for example as Tonto to his Lone Ranger. But even when he wasn’t in costume, Willard was a welcome site. When he showed up at the local pool, kids would swarm around him and he’d join in games of shark because he was so like a kid, too. I no longer live in Lenoir, but in the years since, I have been especially proud to know that I came from a city that most assuredly found a welcome place in the community for all sorts, Willard being the most extreme example of our open arms.

A few months ago, I posted a question about Willard on my Facebook page. It seemed obvious, from my friend’s responses, I’m not the only one with a fond memory of him. People replied with tales of their own Willard-sightings, added links to songs written about him and from those who still lived in or near Lenoir, came a few disappointing updates. Willard is 65 years old now. His wife hasn’t been seen for some time. I’m sure his mother passed away years ago and I’ve been told it shows in his costumes. They are not nearly as crafty and charming as the ones I remember. These days, he dresses mostly in bad drag with ripped fishnet hose and ratty wigs.

Willard made the local’s Facebook walls again this week. A high school classmate posted an article that reported Willard had been hit by a car on April 25. http://www.wbtv.com/story/14508155/man-known-for-flamboyant-costumes-critically-injured-after-being-struck-by-car

According to the WBTV story. “It is unclear what type of costume, if any, [Willard] Blevins was wearing when this latest incident occurred, but the highway patrol says he was wearing a wig which fell off after he was hit.”  It’s an odd detail to include in such a report, but it says everything about the man’s character. I’m sure it frightened the driver who was found not at fault. Willard apparently stepped in front of her station wagon. It is truly unfortunate. Especially since this is not the first time he’s been in such an accident. And unfortunately, this incident left him with serious head trauma and he “was taken to Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte where he was still listed in serious condition on Monday.”

I’m not certain what will happen to Willard. He no longer has any relatives to care for him. And let’s face it; in the late 1990s, he spent time in jail after being charged with indecent liberties with a minor. So he’s a man with a record now. That makes him much less endearing to the town.

I don’t have any photos of Willard, in his hey day or otherwise. I do have a photo my daughter insisted I take of her outside Central Park with some guy dressed as the Statue of Liberty that I took with my camera and still dropped the suggested $2.50 into his bucket for the privilege. Such street performers are in countless photo albums, not just mine, and they’re complete strangers. But I knew Willard. He has a much more vivid and dimensional place in my memory and I never paid him a dime. He never asked for money. He was not a street performer, just a small town crazy. All he seemed to want was our attention. I think there was a time we used to give him much more of it.

I sincerely hope Willard recovers. But if he does, what would he return home to? I’d hate to see Willard become a ward of the state, housed in an institution. Ideally, unrealistically perhaps, I’d like to think that once recovered, an aid might help him select a decent costume and assist him to safely stroll the sidewalks so he could receive a few welcome gawks but safely off the streets. And then maybe he could be Superman once again.

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What a wonderful portrait of Willard; beautifully rendered.
While wonderfully written, do you think the minor victim of his sex crime conviction felt the same benefit of having this man in town? I'm sure he/she (or them) have much different memories of Willard.
@AnaB — you may not wish to accept a sympathetic portrait of a man convicted of a sex crime, an important aspect of Willard's current condition I am aware of and so mentioned briefly in this essay. And though the identity of any minor involved would probably be and always remain confidential, I would assume the situation was a difficult one involving many hard feelings. The question you are really asking is, do we forgive?

Now that you know a little more about Willard, could you offer him forgiveness? Could you wish for a brighter future for him? I certainly think he is a much more dimensional character than simply an "offender," and someone who I agree, is not easily understood.
Thanks for writing this. I am not sure what Willard's crimes were...
He was a unique individual to say the least.
The question of whether our town truly did or could benefit from a man such as Willard is valid. There is no short answer. That's not to say it is not something I considered. I have a personal blog (link above) about being "different." I explore this concept much more fully there. As for Willard — well, yes, I believe our town was better for him, but that then, perhaps we have to face that his community let him down. His mother taught us how to best appreciate him. Had we felt obliged to continue such support when she was no longer able, might things have turned out a little different?
We could all use a Willard in our life, I suspect. You clearly found an affection for yours, and carry that emotion with great dignity and grace, even in the face of the flaws Willard may be afflicted with.

Well written. A good piece of work.
Hi Elizabeth,
I enjoyed your story, it isn't easy upon meeting flambouyant types that aren't famous. I know there are people who actually enjoy creating characters to dress up like, but do it as a business, or perhaps if there is a street fair or something to the likes they get dressed up. Willard on the other hand, just had a thing for getting dressed up, and thanks to his mother who was obviously great sewer she helped get attention. It's a shame he didn't get discovered, costumes cost a great deal of money as you site in your piece, about other street performers who ask for donations, and it becomes another source of income.
It is unfortunate that he chose to act in a distasteful way, it seems so odd how in a society with so much information many types of people come together both fractured looking for something beyond the normal acceptance. It would seem somewhat strange to think of someone getting dressed in unusal outfits and not getting some monetary support for all the effort. But in Willard's case, it was entertainment that he was willing to give away, not to say that he wasn't short changed somehow.
What a moving, full-blown portrait. I too hope Willard recovers but he will live on in this moving account.