Willard Lane: ‘Have I been lucky? No, I’ve been blessed!’
Dr. Willard Lane clutched a copy of Wilmington College’s 1942 Wilmingtonian yearbook during one of his recent visits to WC’s campus.
PICTURED: Willard Lane, who attended WC in 1941-42, reflects upon how Wilmington College proved monumental in his life.
He leafed through the well-worn pages, pointing out photos of the basketball and tennis teams — there he is as a teenager. In the autograph section, he read an entry addressed to “Dear Willie.” “That’s what they used to call me,” he said, as he began reading — with a sparkle in his eye — a girlfriend’s fond recollection of the fun they had at a Gamma Phi Gamma/Delta Omega Theta dance at Snow Hill Country Club — followed by their 2:30 a.m. swim.
The 95-year-old Lane attended Wilmington College for only his freshman year, 1941-42, yet those connections made and his experience in an extraordinary period during World War II played a recurring role and helped set the stage for, literally, a wonderful life.
“I don’t know where I’d be if not for Wilmington College,” said the now-retired, long-time Wilmington dentist.
Lane shared insight into his nearly 10 decades, which have featured a 65-year marriage to his beloved Ruth, a 39-year career in dentistry, designing a golf course, being an acquaintance of Arnold Palmer, marching to “Script Ohio,” military service during two wars, learning hypnosis and embarking upon a new avocation as a writer at 90.
Attending Wilmington College was a natural choice since Lane was literally on the campus every day as a boy delivering the Wilmington News Journal. “My route was the area around Wilmington College; therefore, I knew a lot of faculty members,” he said, mentioning such classic WC professors as Oscar Boyd, W. Russell Pyle, Helen McCoy and Ellen Wright among his customers.
“Knowing all these people made it easy for me to make up my mind.”
Wilmington College in the fall of 1941 hosted 188 students, 70 of whom were freshmen with 20 from Wilmington, according to Lane. The campus consisted of College Hall (what he referred to as “The Main Building”), Denver and Bailey halls and the now departed Whittier Court, Twin Ash and South halls, plus a running track with a covered grandstand.
Lane, who had classmates with familiar local names like Buckley, Swindler and Terrell, pledged Gamma Phi Gamma fraternity because “all the big business people I knew in Wilmington were Gobblers.” He recalled playing basketball before capacity crowds at Whittier Court — those pre-television days attracted a large number of townspeople — as his four-win team played the likes of Cincinnati, Dayton, Cedarville and Otterbein.
“Games were slow compared to today with no shot clock; there were scores like 35-30 and free throws were shot underhand,” he added.
Students attended mandatory chapel services on Tuesdays and Thursdays, at 8 a.m., and tuition was $80 a semester. “My dad was in the poultry business and he convinced the bursar to cover my tuition with chickens and eggs — no money ever changed hands,” he said.
It was during that fall semester when the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor propelled America into World War II. “We were in a car driving through town near the General Denver Hotel when I heard about Pearl Harbor,” he noted. “Of course, this concerned us all and led to a lot of decisions about our future.”
Before the military caught up with Lane, he had his own summer of ’42, three months that proved a seminal part of his education and personal growth. Lane took the train to Detroit, where he successfully interviewed for a job as a traveling salesman selling flower and garden seeds.
His territory covered eastern Pennsylvania, including Philadelphia, Delaware and into Virginia. “My dad said, ‘You’re going to learn more about hard knocks in one summer than you would in four years of college.’”
Lane stayed in boarding houses and YMCAs to stretch his $75 a month salary made selling and maintaining seed racks in stores located in towns like Hazeltown, Pa. He recalled a sales call he arranged with an executive at the DuPont Paint Co. headquarters in Wilmington, Del. Upon his mentioning, “I go to Wilmington College in Wilmington, Ohio,” the intrigued interviewer asked if the young salesman knew an acquaintance of his from the community. He did. “I never even made a sales pitch and got an order for 32 stores!” he said.
Thus, his Wilmington College affiliation began paying off in the most unexpected ways.
Lane shared the story of taking a train that summer from Allentown, Pa., for a weekend in New York City. “I got a room at the Roosevelt Hotel and saw Joe DiMaggio play at Yankee Stadium and, the next day, watched (tennis great) Don Budge at Forest Hills,” he said. “For an 18-year-old kid to do that!”
Once back in Wilmington, Lane decided to continue his education in pre-dentistry at Ohio State University, where the former high school band member was among 80 trumpet players trying out for the OSU Marching Band. Rejected, he auditioned again, this time as a tuba player — and, possessing little prior experience with that instrument, he was selected as a member of the “Best Damn Band in the Land.” In fall 1942, he marched at 120 steps a minute as the great brass and percussion ensemble performed “Script Ohio” at Ohio Stadium for the Buckeyes’ national championship season under Coach Paul Brown.
Since OSU has a long tradition that only senior sousaphone players enjoy the honor of dotting the “i” in “Script Ohio,” that was an opportunity Lane didn’t get to realize because Uncle Sam’s Christmas card to him was a draft notice ordering that he report for induction into the U.S. Army in January 1943.
Lane was assigned to a medical detachment in which he would become a surgical technician. Intent upon pursuing his chosen field of dentistry, he persuaded the military chain of command to reassign him for training in pre-dentistry pending that he could prove within three days that he would be a suitable candidate. He contacted Wilmington College for help.
“I got an appointment with the general, who said, ‘Dr. (Frank) Hazard gives you a very high recommendation,’” he said, noting his former biology professor at WC expedited a glowing reference that won over the general and landed Lane at the University of Illinois, where he was sent for testing in pre-dentistry.
It was there he experienced the most serendipitous moment of his life.
“On July 8, 1943, at 4 p.m., I walked out the front door of the library to take a break,” he said. “Walking up the steps was a young coed I couldn’t take my eyes off.”
He asked Ruth, then a senior, out for a date and the couple began 65 years of marriage two years later in 1945. “If not for Wilmington College, I would never have met my wife!” he said.
Following the extensive testing at Illinois, where he lived with 600 other guys in a dormitory at the university’s ice rink, he needed acceptance into dental school within two weeks — or he’d he sent back to his original Army unit. Enter Wilmington College, again. He called WC requesting that both transcripts and another letter from Hazard be sent to a doctor at the University of Louisville. Days passed without word on his dental school admission. He was literally waiting for the bus to return him to his initial medical detachment in Springfield, Mo., when he received a telegram stating: “You are bona fide accepted to the School of Dentistry at the University of Louisville.”
The acceptance was pending completion of pre-dental studies at Washington and Lee University in Virginia. “It was like Wilmington with small classes, compared to Ohio State with 300 students in a class,” he said, noting at W&L, included in his studies, he learned hypnosis, which he later used in his dental practice.
By fall 1944, when Lane started at Louisville, the war was “waning” so the Army canceled its program in dentistry, however, he was able to cover tuition through benefits in the newly instated G.I. Bill for military veterans. Ruth found a job as a librarian in Louisville and they were married in February as he continued in dental school.
“We didn’t have a car for three years,” he recalled in telling the story of purchasing, for less than $100, a large supply of military surplus dental equipment. There were enough instruments to outfit his future practice and for him to divide the rest into kits he sold to fellow dental students. “I made enough money that I could buy my first car.”
Upon his graduation, he and Ruth returned to Wilmington, where he set up his dental practice on North-South St. and they began their family that eventually grew to include five children, 10 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
Thinking his days in the military were behind him, Lane was drafted to serve in the Korean Conflict in 1951. He held the rank of captain as a dental officer at an Air Force base in Wyoming. He enjoyed taking advantage of such western sporting activities as fly-fishing and hunting deer and antelope, but Wilmington was his home and they returned following his military service.
Lane continued for decades with his successful dental practice while serving the community as a Rotarian and member of the local school board. He complemented his lifelong interest in golf by playing some of the most famous courses in the nation. He still laments three-putting hole 16 while still shooting an 84 at Augusta National in 1964.
Lane enjoys telling the story of following Arnold Palmer at the 1956 Masters in the days before Arnie’s Army, when he was among a handful of fans walking alongside Palmer on Augusta’s fairways. This was the era before the sport’s popularity forced sequestering the gallery into corralled spaces. Lane, a member of golf’s Pro-Am Committee, reconnected a dozen years later with the then-superstar Palmer at the inaugural Heritage Tournament in 1968. The charismatic champion recognized Lane and extended to him the greeting: “Dr. Lane, it’s good to see you.”
“He remembered me!”
Golf continues to hold a special place for Lane, who this past October, at 95-years-old, landed his drive four feet from the hole for a tap-in birdie on number 6 at Snow Hill Country Club.
In the late 1980s, around his retirement in 1987, Snow Hill called upon Lane to head the construction that expanded the course from nine to 18 holes. He re-designed much of the original course in adding the new holes, creating one of the area’s most scenic golfing venues.
Upon his retirement, Lane engaged in a voluntary service, arranged through Rotary International, in which he provided dental work at a Vietnamese refugee camp in the Philippines. He was asked to provide a report to the United Nations and Rotary’s top brass upon completing the five-week mission.
He and Ruth enjoyed years of travel, social events and spending time with their ever-growing brood of grandchildren. Sadly, Ruth passed away in 2010, yet Lane continues to embrace life.
Never one to fear exceeding his comfort zone, he has preached sermons four times at the Lutheran Church and performed, a few years ago, in Wilmington’s popular version of Dancing with the Stars at the Murphy Theatre. Lane is a regular at the College’s basketball games — plus a faithful supporter of WC — and he engages in an impressive fitness regimen that includes walking laps daily at Kroger and working with a personal trainer to hone his core strength and flexibility twice a week.
Hearkening his OSU band days, he can still march at 120 steps a minute for an hour — and he’d be happy to show you! Lane believes in keeping busy and, as he says, “I am living for tomorrow.” He proves it with a positive attitude and positive actions.
In the months before his 90th birthday, Lane decided to get serious about writing, an ability on which former WC English professor Helen McCoy complimented him more than 75 years ago.
He produced a book of writings for his grandkids in which he shares his philosophy on life, while also addressing such virtues as love, joy and kindness. The chapter on love featured a snapshot of “Willard + Ruth.” He also wrote about these for his church’s periodic newsletter.
Lane’s writings also include his “10-Year Plan,” as he looks forward to his 100th birthday in 2023. In reflecting upon living for nearly a century, he mentions seeing “the long path behind me” and asks, “Where’s life gone? It’s gone so fast.” Yet, his focus continues looking at not only his yesterdays but also today and tomorrow.
“Always, I can see tomorrow loaded with dreams and new possibilities, … my best friend, my future.” Lane said. “The past has been awesome. Have I been lucky? No, I’ve been blessed.”BACK