Of all the natural beauty found here in the Lowcountry, what Willis Sanders loves most for its symbolism and its resilience is the Angel Oak. Maybe it’s because he came from a family of eight brothers and one sister that he appreciates the giant trunk and its foundation that still supports such strong limbs.

His dad lived to the age of 92 and instilled a serious work ethic in his children.

Willis, 63, retired just a few months ago from the Berkeley County School District after 41 years. Just so you don’t think he’s special, he’ll tell you that he has four older brothers who all spent 40 or more years at their jobs. The one sister in the group only has 29 years in her job so the other siblings are not quite ready to recognize her for anything beyond the norm, at least for another decade or so.

For most of his career, Willis Sanders was the principal at Sedgefield Middle School. For all of his career, he’s been a teacher. For essentially his entire life, he’s been an artist, and that’s what he loves to do most and still does every day.

Connecting the Dots

Sanders first memory of drawing takes him to the floor of his father’s grocery store in Cross. At the age of 6, Sanders would draw on grocery bags while gazing at a Norman Rockwell calendar.

He thought he had a gift, but while his dad viewed the doodlings as a hobby, he pushed Willis to get an education and a job if he expected to make anything of himself.

Sanders graduated from Benedict College but wanted more. While a teacher at Howe Hall Middle School, he spent spent years driving from his home in Cross to his job in Goose Creek and then to Orangeburg to secure his masters.

He spent 25 years in the county’s middle schools. All the while, he continued to draw and he discovered something that he loved more than his art. He started to give those creations to students who committed themselves to making good grades along with achieving perfect attendance.

His pen and ink originals of everything from animals to athletes created an incentive for those middle school kids who appreciated a principal who believed in them.

Sanders has given away close to 6,000 drawings at this point. He’s quit counting, but he hasn’t quit drawing.

Recently, Terrell Mustover, a student in a gifted and talented art class at Goose Creek High was given an assignment to draw an artist that inspired him. His reply was”Mr. Sanders (his middle school principal) is the only artist I know.”

Limbs that reach out

Sanders spent his final years in the system at the administrative level and retired this spring. He still bumps into students, though, who remember his drawings.

It was while kneeling on the family store’s wooden floors and scribbling on those grocery bags, though, that first fanned his passion and opened a whole world to a little boy from rural Berkeley County.

Because he’s still a teacher, he’ll tell you the “... biggest room in the world is the room for improvement.” He draws every day, and says he’s “better ... but still not good.”

That family foundation and the supporting limbs have kept him grounded all these years. It wasn’t always his art, but the sharing of it, that ultimately has given him so much satisfaction.

A couple of weeks ago, he was invited to his home church in Cross, as they celebrated its 109th anniversary. His grandfather helped build Jehovah AME Church.

Sanders presented the church with a large piece of art that he hoped would symbolize how supportive and nurturing those folks had been to him. Their limbs had protected him. The strong roots allowed him to dream, persevere and achieve. The drawing he donated? The Angel Oak.

Reach Warren Peper at wpeper@postandcourier.com.