Sanders shares love of art, education
Few people have combined their love for art and education as successfully and prominently as Willis Sanders.
His first memory of creating art is drawing on paper bags in his parents’ grocery store at the age of 11 or 12. That was decades ago at Sanders Grocery in Cross.
After 41 years, Sanders will not “retire” but rather “transition” out of the Berkeley County School District and into a new chapter. He’s been a math teacher, assistant principal, principal, assistant superintendent of personnel/human resources and employee relations specialist at the BCSD.
From the time his father showed him Norman Rockwell’s work in the “Saturday Evening Post,” Sanders said he wanted to be like Rockwell.
“Dad said, ‘Willis, do you know anyone that makes a living as an artist?’” Sanders recalled.
While spending time in his father’s store as a youngster, Sanders’ ability to work with people – and his ability at math – was apparent.
Sanders graduated from Central High School, now Cross High School, as valedictorian in 1967. He declined an offer from an art college in Connecticut and studied math at Benedict College in Columbia. He attended art history classes there.
“I got a low lottery number for the (Selective Service System) draft,” Sanders said. “My number was 76. I’ll never forget that.”
He said he received a deferment because he was in college and maintained his grades. By the time he graduated in 1971, the U.S. troop level in Vietnam was declining, but Sanders could not find a job due to his draft classification.
He returned to Cross and managed Sanders Grocery from June 1971 to January 1972. He saw Howe Hall Middle School was looking for a sixth-grade math teacher.
“I had a degree in math, not education,” he said. “They had a program where I could teach and take education classes. I knew math.”
Sanders started working on his master’s degree at S.C. State University. He drove from Cross where he lived to Goose Creek to teach, and then to Orangeburg to take classes.
In 1976 he became assistant principal at Howe Hall Middle School. The entire staff moved to Sedgefield Middle School, where Sanders was principal from 1981 to 1995.
“In my first year as principal, I thought I need to think of something unique and original,” he said. “I was drawing some. Kids saw it, and asked if I’d draw (for them).”
He told students if they made good grades, had good attendance, good conduct and received a “gold medal” for making the principal’s “A” honor roll, he would do just that.
The drawings were incentive for students. Gold winners would receive an original Sanders drawing: “That’s how I started incorporating art into education. Nobody was doing anything like that.”
The rewards program became so popular that sponsors such as Hawthorn Aviation joined to give students airplane rides over Charleston if their name was drawn from the “gold basket.”
At assemblies Sanders would bring guest speakers such as Warren Peper, Bill Walsh, Henry Brown, Mary Thornley and former Charleston Police Chief Rueben Greenburg.
One of Sanders’ students was Phillip Obie, who now serves on the Berkeley County School Board.
In March 1995 Sanders and then elementary school supervisor Jane Pulling took a trip to Oxford, England. He said they were on the rural Oxford University campus for two weeks.
In 1995 Sanders became the district’s assistant superintendent of personnel (later rechristened human resources). He kept drawing and giving artwork to students and teachers of the year.
“The acceptance and appreciation of my drawings made me do more. Then I started winning awards. I love to draw and share my work. It has always been my passion.”
Sanders chuckles that his brothers used to tease him for drawing in the dirt.
Over the years he has given away thousands of signed prints – and that’s a conservative guess, he said. Sanders autographs each print individually rather than copying the autograph.
Sanders said he gives away art to further the mission of the school district.
“What’s best for our children?” he said. “That’s our mission. It’s not about us. Every organization has a mission.
“As my dad used to say, ‘Whatever job you have, do your best and the rest will take care of itself.’
“If you have a talent use it to motivate and inspire others.”
After his father lost his life to diabetes, Sanders donated art to the American Diabetes Association and more charities after his wife passed away from cancer in 1999.
“Anything charitable, I’ll give an original,” he said. “That whole time drawing was therapeutic . . . dealing with that tragedy.”
His late wife taught at College Park Elementary School. The library there has a Lily C. Sanders memorial section where a fund is set up so anyone can donate books. For the last 14 years he’s given the school a drawing.
Sanders is known for pen and ink pointillism drawings sometimes embellished with watercolors. His rendition of the Angel Oak tree has remained popular.
“There was nobody doing pointillism.”
Since March 2012 his drawings have had the theme of “HeART,” with subtly hidden hearts.
“Love is the whole purpose of the heart,” he said. “Love what you do, love others. Everything’s about the heart.”
One of his most recent works, completed in March, is “Glenda’s Magnolia,” named after BCSD Associate Superintendent of Human Resources Glenda Levine, who is filling Sanders’ vacancy. He said Levine found the hidden hearts right away.
Sanders gave copies of the magnolia pointillism with a green and purple watercolor background to the receptionists of all 41 county schools. He told them to look at themselves as one petal on the magnolia – symbolizing their part in the team. The pointillism dots could represent children.
Sanders’ message to students is pay attention to detail and stay focused to be successful.