CVHS teaching legend, ClaytonArts Academy co-founder passes leaving lasting legacy with students, arts program

By Jay Bedecarre on May 6, 2013

Tom Wills
Dec. 1, 1947 – Apr. 24, 2013

Teachers can play such a pivotal role in the lives of their students and, judging by the comments of his students and teaching colleagues, retired Clayton Valley High School drama teacher Tom Wills gets a standing ovation and rave reviews. The Concord resident, 65, passed away April 24 nine months after a cancer diagnosis.

Wills was on the faculty at Clayton Valley for a quarter century before retiring in 2010. The enduring legacy of Wills’ time at Clayton Valley, besides the hundreds of students he educated and inspired, is the ClaytonArts Academy that he co-founded with Aline Lee.

In 1999 Elizabeth Emigh was fresh out of college teaching choir two hours a day on an emergency credential when Wills “stuck his head in my classroom” asking her to help with a production of “Sweet Charity.” “He was an ‘out-of-the-box thinker’ who believed that the process was as important as the product.” Wills subbed for Emigh when she was on maternity leave after he retired.

Jeff Hagerstrand (CVHS Class of 1992) came back to his alma mater from 2002-12. “[Tom] was my mentor for 10 years at CVHS and I collaborated with him in the ClaytonArts Academy, the program he invented and helped found. He was also my teacher when I was in high school. Tom lived his philosophy: ‘Living is behaving imaginatively under truthful circumstances,’ which was his own re-phrasing of acting guru Sanford Meisner’s directive that ‘Acting is behaving truthfully under imaginary circumstances.’”

Lee is vice principal at College Park after teaching 15 years at Clayton Valley. “Thomas Seville Wills was a gifted man, who had an eye for talent. He would develop the character that he knew you had hidden within you, whether on stage or in real life. The magical support he provided would allow you to transform yourself from a caterpillar into a butterfly. He guided you on your journey of growth. He was a director, mentor, coach, teacher, friend, father, husband and patron of the arts. He will be missed, but his spirit will live on in all his children — his sons and his students.

“It was an honor, a privilege and a pleasure to team-teach alongside him. ClaytonArts Academy is a direct reflection of his joy of teaching through the arts. Where there was Wills, there was a play.”

Singer-songwriter Justin McRoberts (Class of 1992) posted on Facebook, “Tom Wills taught me that the stage could be a place where far more than entertainment took place. He loved the arts, he loved the kids he coached and because of that love the world is a more thoughtful, more beautiful place.”

Amber Lineweaver adds, “Tom was an extraordinary teacher and human being. He is a Clayton Valley legend and is remembered fondly by generations of students. In my 18 years as his co-worker, he inspired me daily and I hope to one day achieve even half of the respect and accomplishments he earned in his long career.”

The 15-time World Champion Blue Devils posted: “The Blue Devils are saddened by the passing of Tom Wills, a long-time fan, friend and supporter. Tom is known by many for his years with the A corps as part of the Devil’s Food Crew. Tom’s involvement was truly a family activity. His son Kris was a member of the C, B and A corps and his wife Katie served as membership chairperson of the Booster Club while Tom was club secretary. Tom’s easy smile and unselfish hard work, at camps, on tour and in support of the corps members, was an inspiration to all who knew him.”

Wills is survived by wife Katie, sons JT and Kris, sisters Karen and Kathe and brother Mike.

A Celebration of Life/Memorial Service is this Saturday, May 11, 10:30 a.m. at Mt. Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church/ in Walnut Creek. Donations in his name can be made to MDUUC Walnut Creek or Cancer Support Community of Walnut Creek.

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