The O.H. (Orthopedically Handicapped) Unit of Greg Rogers Elementary is divided into two groups of twelve children (grades 1-4 and grades 5-8) with a variety of disabilities. Mr. Olen Wilford, the Unit’s “Tender Troubadour,” teaches the older children.
My name is Beth. I’m six years old. We always go to Mr. Wilford’s room for music, and it’s now way past lunch. Our teacher, Mrs. Shenners, keeps talking, but I’ve stopped listening. I’m looking around the room, out the windows, and finally my excitement bubbles to the surface. I can’t sit still another minute. I’m happy in my room, but happiest venturing into the place where I hear the music. I raise my hand, interrupting Mrs. Shenners. “Is it time for music yet?” I ask. “I can hear the music coming from the other room already.”
She looks at me sternly and says, “Yes, Beth, it is. Everyone line up at the door quietly.”
Connected by two sliding doors with a short hallway in between, we move single file — in wheelchairs, on crutches, and those who can walk unaided, from our room into a magical, musical world — a musical “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium”. As each of us comes into the room, a very suntanned Mr. Wilford welcomes us with open arms. Thin but muscular, his hugs melt every little girl’s heart including mine. His hair shines like the color of a new copper penny with golden highlights. His blue eyes dance. His clothes are simple, sport shirt and slacks with low boots.
“Well I declare! Look at all your smiling faces,” he says , as he sits down on a chair that swivels, and picks up his guitar. “Ready to sing?”
“What shall we sing first?”
“Puff The Magic Dragon,” we shout in unison.
And so it begins, like it does every afternoon. Mr. Wilford’s favorite songs are ’60s folk songs, with some gospel mixed in, too. He loves teaching us the songs, and we love singing at the top of our lungs and clapping along. A perfect end to the day.
I saw my “tender troubadour” and teacher the final time in 1977, when I’d returned as a summer school volunteer in the OH Unit. While I was waiting for a ride home, and watching the children being loaded on specially equipped buses, a man resembling Mr. Wilford caught my eye. As he walked closer I let him pass me. “Mr. Wilford?”
He spun on his heel and said, “Well I declare! Hello Beth Casey.”
Seeing his face and hearing his unmistakable drawl transported me back to a time of innocence and indescribable joy. He ran to me and kneeled down beside me. We hugged for a long time. I was six years old al over again.
Sadly, I learned that Mr. Wilford died in June 2012 at age 83. If heaven is anything like the mythical land of Honah Lee that we sang about so often, I know that Mr. Wilford is in a happy place.
Olen M. Wilford
“Puff the magic dragon lived by the sea, and frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honah Lee.”