EASTERN HANCOCK — The blue park bench sitting on the playground at the Community School Corp. of Eastern Hancock is not only a place for people to sit and rest. The bench was made by family members of a former educator named Mae Willis, in remembrance of the woman who dedicated her life to education in the area.
Miss Mae, as she was affectionately known, taught elementary students in the Eastern Hancock area for 50 years. She started back when kids rode horse-drawn carriages to school, her family said. Miss Mae’s entire career was in what is now know as the Community School Corp. of Eastern Hancock.
Family members say Miss Mae began teaching at the Westland School in 1916 for kids in the Blue River Township. After the building burned in 1947, she moved with all of the students to the Charlottesville school off of U.S. 40. By the time she retired in the late 60s, the school was part of the newly formed Community School Corp. of Eastern Hancock.
“This was kind of a family project for us,” Mae’s great-nephew, Charles Willis, said.
Miss Mae was the kind of educator who took meticulous notes and kept track of every student she worked with. Old reports noted her allotment of students ran close to 45 per year, meaning she touched the lives of over 2,200 students. Many of her students went on to be lawyers, doctors, teachers, ministers and farmers.
Charles, a retired educator from the Shenandoah school district, along with his wife, Emma, also a retired educator from New Castle, started collecting bottle caps with family and friends several years ago. The project took them three years to come up with over 250 pounds of bottle caps that were then recycled by a company in Evansville into the remembrance bench.
“We turned-in back in June around 280 pounds of recycled plastic lids,” Charles said. “We then had a remembrance plaque made to go on the bench.”
The plaque reads, “In Honor of Miss Mae,” a woman who the family said loved nothing more than molding strong character and making sure kids understood the importance of a good education.
“She was well known, well respected and well liked,” Charles said. “She was born and raised on the family farm, a farm the family still owns in Blue River Township, so she was a farm girl who was no-nonsense.”
Still, Charles said his great-aunt was patient and kind. Even in retirement she would subscribe to magazines where she would cut out pictures and articles that she wanted to integrate into teaching or in some other way.
“For years she lived on the family farm with her sister, our great-aunt Martha (Willis), who also went into education at Wilkinson and then went to New Palestine and taught there for 40 years,” Charles said.
He noted that it was his two aunts that helped lead him to live a long adventure in education. Charles spent 40 years as a mathematics teacher, coach and a principal at Shenandoah High School.
Charles said he and his siblings, Mary Clark, a retired family and consumer science educator in Wisconsin; Chris Willis, a professor at Bowling Green University in Ohio; and Deby Low, a businesswoman in Greenfield, all credit their great aunts with helping them find their professional paths.
Charles happened to be the principal of current Eastern Hancock superintendent George Philhower when he was at Shenandoah High School, and Philhower said he was pleased when the family came and installed the bench on school grounds last week.
“The bench is really nice,” Philhower said. “We love having it here and it will get a lot of use.”
Charles, who did his student teaching at Eastern Hancock in the 1970s, noted the family discussed the best place to install the bench and felt because it is a durable bench and they wanted many people to enjoy it, they decided placing it at Eastern Hancock was the right spot.
“We felt the playground was the best place, knowing there would be a number of people who could get use out of it,” Charles said.
Creating the bench fulfills a pledge Charles and his siblings made to their dad when he passed away a little over three years ago that they would do something to honor their great-aunt Miss Mae and their great-aunt Martha.
“We were honored to do that for him to show that honor and respect to our great-aunts,” Charles said.
The old Royal school newspaper upon her retirement read, “Miss Mae, as she is affectionately known in school circles, with the declaration that our community is a better community for your having served so lovingly, loyally and unselfishly far beyond the call of duty.”