Hanover’s Marilyn ‘Willy’ Black Dies at 87

  • Marilyn "Willy" Black, of Hanover, N.H., is photographed during a May 20, 2002, interview. A longtime Hanover resident who taught at the Ray School and led numerous community organzations, Black died on Feb. 20, 2018. She was 87. (Valley News - Laura DeCapua) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Kindergarten teacher Marilyn "Willy" Black served as mission director for an Apollo countdown at the Ray School in Hanover, N.H., on Feb. 1, 1971. Work crews consisted of about 30 preschool youngsters, who experienced a good lesson in teamwork -- aside from the obvious fun. (Valley News - Larry McDonald) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Hanover selectwoman Marilyn "Willy" Black listens to discussion at a meeting on May 16, 1988. Black served on the board for 21 years. (Valley News - Stephanie Wolff) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, February 23, 2018

Hanover — Marilyn “Willy” Black, a former elementary school art teacher who was a major part of civic life in Hanover for more than two decades, died on Tuesday. She was 87.

A former Selectboard chairwoman who spearheaded the creation of the Richard W. Black Center (no relation) for recreation and carved the town’s famous “Pig and Wolf” statues with her seven-pound electric chainsaw, Black was known as an independent woman who spoke her mind and could be relied upon to get things done.

“She was the one who just took the idea and made it happen,” her daughter Holle Black said this week.

Black served on the Hanover Selectboard for 21 years, starting in 1985, and led the board for six years as chairwoman. She also was a member of the Upper Valley Haven’s founding board of directors and a dizzying list of Hanover volunteer groups: the Conservation Commission, the Parks and Recreation Board, the Howe Library Board of Trustees, the Recycling Committee, the Senior Center Advisory Board, the Hanover Water Works Board and the Hanover Improvement Society.

She died on Tuesday, a few weeks after an accidental fall at Harvest Hill, in Lebanon, where she was living.

“I will miss her so much,” Hanover Town Manager Julia Griffin said in an email on Thursday. “She recruited me, she chaired the board that hired me, she was my touchstone and, whenever we disagreed, she reminded me that she was old enough to be my mom.

“In fact,” Griffin added, “she was my local mom. Such a unique treasure. And when I sit down and think of everything she did for Hanover and the Upper Valley over her life here, it is amazing. A true force of nature. She will be missed.”

Black was born on Nov. 15, 1930, in State College, Pa., to Clarence and Ruth Williams and grew up in the town that hosts Pennsylvania State University, where her father was a dean.

Black’s maiden name, Williams, was the basis for “Willy,” the nickname she was known by most of her life. As a child, young Willy was a tomboy, known to shoot out streetlights with BB guns as a teenager, wrangle rattlesnakes and play the trombone in her high school band.

A scholarship for the children of Penn State employees lured Black to college there, where she majored in recreational education — or, as she liked to call it, “ball bouncing.”

Her first job was as a gym teacher at the University of New Hampshire, which she later called the “luckiest thing that ever happened to her,” her daughters said, “because she fell in love with New Hampshire.”

After returning to Penn State for a master’s degree, she taught at Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan. But her recreational career was cut short, sometime in the 1950s, by a skiing accident that injured her knee.

Her girls, Heather and Holle, were born in 1960 and 1962, and for the next few years she stayed at home to care for them. Finally, in 1968, Black returned to teaching, becoming first a substitute kindergarten teacher and then a full-time art teacher in Hanover. She stayed at the latter job until retirement, in 1992.

As a teacher, Black had an inventive, get-it-done way to her, a colleague recalled. In 1975, when the United States’ bicentennial was approaching, talk went around the school of building a colonial-era house to mark the occasion.

“Before we knew it, she had figured out how to do it all,” said Debby Franzoni, who taught P.E. “She just had that way about her of really getting things done.”

Black had each grade of the Ray School put together a different part of the house, from the bricks for the fireplace to the very nails in the walls, and mostly from scratch. The kids used period woodworking tools and even raised sheep, shearing them and weaving the wool to create cloth.

Without telling her, Black’s friends nominated her for the New Hampshire Teacher of the Year award, which she ended up winning in 1978. State laureates entered the national contest, which Black also won, in 1979. That led Black — a “die-hard” Democrat, her daughters said — to meet two presidents: Jimmy Carter, after she first won the award, and Bill Clinton, during the 15-year reunion.

Soon after those awards, in 1980, Black received her third academic degree: a doctorate in humane letters, from Dartmouth College.

Retirement, for Black, might best be framed in quotation marks.

“When she retired,” Franzoni said of Black, “she said, ‘I want to do two things. I want to be a chainsaw artist, but I don’t want to make bears, and I want to learn the bassoon.’ ”

Within a year, she had done both. Black’s aversion to wooden bears stemmed, apparently, from their overuse as a subject by carvers. Instead, she sculpted a wide array of well-loved pieces, including, most famously, a pig and wolf pair that became symbols for the town.

Commissioned by Bill Hammond, then a Hanover High School teacher and now principal of Marion Cross in Norwich, the statues gained notoriety for the humorous costumes and situations Hammond would place them in. One year, several molded fiberglass copies of the animals were sold at a charity auction. Another year, the wooden originals were stolen — or “kidnapped,” as some termed it — precipitating something of a crisis in town.

Despite the meaning her carvings came to have for townspeople, Black, a practical, hands-on person who considered herself more a craftsman than an artist, never cared to reflect on the metaphysical side of her work.

“I’m not sure it’s an art form,” she told the Valley News in 1997. “I don’t know if it’s a craft. It’s a craft, I guess. I’m not sure. ... I do it for fun.”

“She had no artsy-fartsy philosophy,” her daughter Heather Landrey said this week. “She did what was fun, and if she didn’t like it, she stopped and did something else.”

The same year Black built the Ray School house, she ended her marriage. She remained single for the rest of her life.

“She liked living her life the way she wanted to do it,” Landrey said. “She didn’t want to compromise much.”

“She didn’t have much patience for a lot of people, because most people were a bit silly,” Holle Black added. “And that certainly went for men.”

“She was not a warm and fuzzy person,” Landrey said. “She was more of a doer.”

She also was a “heavy-duty” prankster, her daughters said. Schoolchildren, co-workers and her own children learned to be on their guard when April 1 came each year. Students might be greeted in the Ray School lobby with a giant banner reading “NO SCHOOL TODAY” and, in tiny letters in the corner, “April Fool’s.”

In 2013, Black’s daughters got her back. For her birthday, they bought scores of cheap plastic flamingos and scattered them across Black’s lawn and the Upper Valley. “You’ve been flocked!” said a sign attached to one of the birds in her yard.

The flamingos in other locations came with signs that said, “We’ve gotten lost on our way to wishing Willy a happy birthday. Call this number to bring me home.” So for the next few days, Black received dozens of calls from strangers offering her good wishes — and a lawn ornament.

In her final years, Black put together a bucket list that included her desire to visit every continent. She reached them all, except for Antarctica, traveling with a group of friends from her musical endeavors — Vermont Symphony Orchestra, the Dartmouth Wind Ensemble and local bands, among many others.

“Nobody goes there, anyway,” she said of the icy continent. “There’s nothing to see but snow.”

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or at 603-727-3242.