I met him 16 years ago. He was a transient – well groomed and clean, but suffering from a mental illness that made our local social service agencies nervous. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with him either; so we put him on a bus and sent him off. And he seemed OK with that. Before I bought his ticket I called the pastor in the city where he was going. I was surprised to learn that the transient and my clergy colleague seemed to know each other quite well.
About a year later he came back. I saw him standing in the middle of Main Street in our village, looking up at the sky, focused on some object that only he could see. I escorted him out of the middle of the road and he told me that he wanted to get an apartment in our town and make it his home. He fed me information, gave me phone numbers and names of people to call. But as quickly as he might be talking to you, he was suddenly talking to someone else, visible only to him. I called around and found a local Bed & Breakfast that needed some help. In exchange for the work done he could have a room and food. That lasted about two days. He spooked the proprietor and was quickly let go.
Not wanting to put him on a bus again, and not having the financial resources to put him up in a hotel, my wife and I invited him to stay with us for a while. I made a point of it to call some of the names at the numbers he had provided to me. I learned he was from Livingston, Montana where he had an apartment and a network of people who looked after him. But he did not want to go back there. I also learned that the story he told – of being president of his senior class at Ithaca College – was true. It was while at graduate school in California that something had happened. A drug overdose? A latent psychosis waiting in the wings to manifest itself? Perhaps some combination of the two.
Occasionally he would ask for a little money so he could buy a loaf of bread. He would take the bread into our yard, stand in the middle and look up, and break off pieces of bread until he had gone through the entire loaf, feeding the birds. My neighbor called one afternoon to inform me there was a strange man standing in our yard – looking up at the sky. I assured her that he was harmless.
My life intersected with this man a dozen times over the years. We continue to intersect even now. And the other day I received a call from a writer who works for a magazine in Montana who is writing an article about him. The article will be about his travels and the many friends and advocates who seem to come around him wherever he goes. She heard that I was one of those “advocates”; thus her call to me. But she said something that struck me.
“It has always seemed to me that you can take the measure of a person — and a town for that matter — by how they treat William Whelan. He’s kind of a touchstone for the goodness in people.” William – a traveling “canary in the coal mine” of the land. William – a “touchstone” and the measure of the goodness in us. It’s biblical. It’s not the well-to-do who reveal the moral mettle of a community; it’s the people who need, who struggle, who don’t quite see the world with the eyes of normalcy that bring out the best and the worst in all of us.
After one of William’s lengthier stays with us I was putting him on a bus. He always calls me “Dr. Demers”. I have no idea why that is so. He knows I am a clergy person, not a medic. Nothing hangs on my walls in either my office or home even remotely suggesting that I have any credentials worthy of the title “Dr.” The bus pulled up and my heart suddenly got heavy. The driver hopped out to put William’s suitcase in the undercarriage. Having examined William’s ticket, the driver motioned for him to board. As he was following William onto the bus I gently pulled him aside.
“Just so you know,” I said, “he might stand up in the aisle of the bus and start talking softly to no one in particular. He’s not at all dangerous. In fact, he is quite gentle.” I was thinking of him – the chronicler of the stars, the desciber of figure skaters, the scholar now buried beneath a mental illness, the touchstone for the goodness in us.
“Oh,” and I said to the driver, “his name is William.”