A Life Lived: William Townsend ‘hitch hiked” his way into local hearts, Roan Street FWB Church

Published 8:26 am Wednesday, May 31, 2017

By a lot of people’s standards, William Townsend never lived a very privileged life. He never wanted attention, no fancy job titles, not even a job. He never wanted material things. Never owned a home, a car, nor had a lot of money in his lifetime. The only family he had was his church family.

However, Willie Townsend enjoyed life — he loved people, had a knack for growing things, looked forward to watching the sun come up in the morning and set in the evening, and oh, how he liked to laugh.

Willie, as he was known to friends and his church family at Roan Street Free Will Baptist Church, died May 21. He had been a resident of Pine Ridge Health Care and Rehabilitation Center since 2013. However, before that and for a number of years he lived on Manning Street near the Watauga River and in front of Roan Street Free Will Baptist Church.

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A native of Sheridan, Wyoming, Willie ended up in Elizabethton, when he was picked up by the Sutphin family while hitch hiking from California. He traveled to Elizabethton with the family and lived in their apartment. Willie enjoyed gardening, and often sold produce he raised in the garden on the Sutphin property. He also did yard work and odd jobs for the Sutphin family.

When the property was sold to Roy Hyder, “Willie came with the house and property,” said Amanda Hyder, Roy’s daughter. “He continued to live in the house, do his gardening, and he became like family to us,” said Amanda, who most of the time took Willie to his doctor appointments and was his caretaker.

“Willie was content, never complained. He was a happy person, loved his church and his dog, Bo,” said Amanda.

She shared that Willie was a private person. “He never like to go a lot, just to church, the grocery store, places that he had to,” she added.

Fredia Carrier, social worker at Pine Ridge Care Center, remembers Willie as a sweet, humble person. “He was a fun person. He liked to sneak up behind you in his wheelchair and scare you,” Fredia shared. “Every time he rolled by the office, he would smile and wave.”

She recalls that as long as Willie was able, the Hyder family or someone from the congregation would come on Sunday morning and take him to church.

His former pastor, the Rev. Greg Largent, who helped with his memorial service, remembers Willie from his time at Roan Street Free Will Baptist Church. “He was very faithful to his church. Willie was the first one there and the last one to leave. He opened the church up and locked it when he left. Sometimes, when a few members would linger and talk, Willie would put his finger on a loud key on the piano to let them know it was time to go. If they continued to linger, he would turn the lights out and lock them inside the church.

“Willie was such a simple person. He never had much, but he didn’t want much. He laughed a lot,” said Largent.

One thing he especially remembers about Willie was his being the unofficial greeter at Roan Street church. “He had a special seat in the back of the church. He stood up and opened the door for everyone, gave them a bulletin and welcomed them to the services. He did the same when church was over. He greeted people when they came and told them goodbye when he left,” Pastor Largent said.

As such, he was the face of Roan Street Free Will Baptist Church.

Largent recalls that once when he was preaching, Willie nodded off. “I apparently became loud at some point, and startled him. Right there, during the message, he said, ‘You scared me’ and began laughing. Willie was precious,” shared Largent.

Outside of his church family, the only other living being Willie claimed was his dog, “Bo,” which he often referred to as “an old mutt.” He was one of two dogs that came with the house and grounds Willie lived on. The other dog died, and Bo became Willie’s constant companion.

William Townsend, like Dwight Moody would say, “Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant. It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest.”

No doubt, Willie Townsend touched a lot of lives when he lived on Manning St.