Willingham brings ‘Rhett’ back to life in children’s book

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 3, 2013

SALISBURY — Rhett died more than a year ago.

The miniature pinscher came from a champion line, but he was born with a bad shoulder that couldn’t be fixed when he was older. Because of the arthritis that developed, Rhett learned to move mostly on three legs. He made do without complaint.

“Nobody told him there was anything wrong about walking around on three legs,” David Willingham says.

Rhett was a barker, the family’s guard-dog alarm for any strangers at the door or in the neighborhood.

He liked to watch the squirrels chase each other outside, tried to make friends with other animals and was deathly afraid of thunder and lightning. Storms made him tremble all over, leading him to nose his way under a favorite blanket or hide in a secluded cabinet.

The late Rhett Butler (that was his full name) has become the feature character in a children’s book written by his owner and best friend, 75-year-old David Willingham.

It’s a modest, self-published venture available through Amazon Books. Willingham wrote the copy and did the pastel paintings serving as illustrations for the book, “I’m Lonely.”

But his son, David, also contributed photographs, and daughter Mary, a crisis counselor by profession, filled a role as chief editor.

David’s wife, Libba, an even more accomplished artist, was his “encourager” and sounding board.

“It became a family project,” says the always busy Willingham. “It was a project that actually brought us closer together. There were a lot more blessings than just doing the book.”

Willingham, a retired chemical engineer, campground owner and Presbyterian pastor, used Rhett as a vehicle for presenting to children the four core emotions of “glad,” “sad,” “mad” and “afraid.”

Willingham thinks children can easily identify with a dog and through him realize these emotions are natural. He hopes the book gives parents a chance to talk with their young children about them.

“Rhett had so many different expressions,” Willingham says. “I thought, you know, they almost look human.”

Willingham first wanted to make a poster showing Rhett’s different expressions and offer it to child psychiatrists.

“Nobody wanted the poster,” he says, chuckling. “And my paintings weren’t selling, so I decided why not put it into children’s storybook form.”

As a youngster, Willingham said, he couldn’t tell his parents he was mad at them about something. He was afraid it meant or would be translated as his not loving them, which wasn’t the case.

Also, he considered feeling anger as being wrong.

But with his book, Willingham tries to show children Rhett might have a reason to be angry. And if Rhett were angry, it might help children work through some of their own “mad” feelings, Willingham says.

“I think we’re pretty afraid to reveal how we feel,” he adds.

As Willingham blended his words and drawings, he also received valuable feedback from the Rev. Jan Huntley, associate pastor at St. John’s Lutheran Church. Her suggestions, for example, led Willingham to make things bigger and more colorful.

When you ask Willingham why he did a children’s book, he mentions the emotions he wanted children to recognize. He also laughs that, as a retiree, he needs something to do to make himself feel useful.

“If anything,” Willingham says of the book with Rhett as a star, “this is family history. It captures an era of several years.”

Willingham first started drawing when he was 70, and as he pages through the notebooks of his early pastels, one can see how the drawings keep getting better.

“You know,” he says critically, “you improve, then you slide back.”

Willingham also took up tae kwon do later than most people, becoming a black belt at 60.

For the last several years, Willingham has volunteered his time at Livingstone College, using his engineering skills to renovate the dressing and equipment rooms for the football team.

Right now, the school has run out of projects for him to do.

The scary thing is, Willingham has a twin brother, Don, living in Spokane, Wash. Maybe Don’s living on the other side of the country balances things out.

“I think he’s ugly, too,” Willingham says.

If you’ve wondered, Willingham has another children’s book in the works.

It’s going to be called “Life Isn’t Fair,” and it will star a pet gerbil who isn’t happy being caged up while all of the family’s other animals have free run of the house.

Willingham says the theme centers on what makes a home and what makes a child feel loved, protected and taken care of.

“It’s going to have more action in it,” Willingham promises.

Somewhere, Rhett is feeling a bit insulted.

David Willingham’s book, “I’m Lonely,” sells for $9.50 and can be purchased through Amazon Books (amazon.com). Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@salisburypost.com.