Willowbrook Middle School celebrates 80th birthday of original staff member


Mr. Merel Wilson stood by a special birthday sign in honor of his 80th birthday at Willowbrook Middle School.

Students and staff at Willowbrook Middle School (WMS) lined the halls of the school on Friday, Jan. 6, 2023, ready to surprise Mr. Merel Wilson, who has worked at the school since its opening in 2009.

WMS teacher Mike Rhines describes Mr. Wilson as "Prairie Hill District's version of a Swiss Army knife." Wilson drives a school bus in the morning, supervises lunch and recess, and works on the custodial staff. Then he drives students home on the bus in the afternoon. He just turned 80 years old.

On Friday, after he finished his morning bus route, Wilson was greeted with a surprise birthday hallway walk, with WMS principal Jacqui Thompson leading Mr. Wilson into the celebration.

Sounds of the “Happy Birthday” song were heard, followed by loud cheers and applause. As he walked the hallway, Wilson gave out high fives.

To make his day extra special, students signed a birthday banner for him. The WMS staff gifted him with a Vintage 1943 T-shirt, a picture collage, and lots of birthday goodies to enjoy.

Mr. Wilson is well known and loved in the district, as he works in many different capacities. He is a true inspiration to all who know him.

Mr. Wilson enjoyed a nice spread of foods and other goodies while celebrating his birthday at Willowbrook Middle School.

His reputation and strong work ethic dates back to him owning Wilson Auto Service on N. Rockton Avenue in Rockford for 40 years. He sold his business and retired 17 years ago.

But he only remained retired for the summer. As a doer, he got bored and sought out new opportunities.

Merel Wilson had a friend who worked for the bus company, and Mr. Wilson began driving a school bus. But he lived in Rockford and didn't want to drive all the way home each morning after completing his bus routes. So former school secretary Mary Rayment reached out to him because the school was looking for help in the lunchroom and during recess.

Wes Heiar, later a district superintendent, was still the school principal when Merel Wilson was hired. Wilson has been with WMS ever since, working alongside maintenance supervisor Barb Sand, helping in any way that is needed.

It didn't take long before the school realized what a gem they have in Merel Wilson. On the school website, after the faculty and staff sections, Merel Wilson is listed in a category of his own: Renaissance Man. In addition to his previously listed duties, Wilson has always found other ways to help out. He is known for being very handy, knowledgeable, and hard working. 

It is not unusual to see Merel up on a lift, several feet up in the air, replacing filters, or repairing equipment, mowing, or helping with the Renaissance program, or performing maintenance duties.

Mr. Wilson operating the EZ lift at Willowbrook Middle School.

Willowbrook Middle School Principal Jacqui Thompson shares these sentiments:

“When I think of Merel, it is hard to put into words all he means to this district and the people within it. On the outside, he is a trusted bus driver, recess supervisor, and member of our custodial staff. However, working with Merel means much more than that,” Thompson said. 

She adds, “Merel is the definition of dedication. He shows up day after day with a smile on his face, not because he has to but because he truly loves working with kids and takes pride in all he does. Merel shows care and compassion for each student and staff member he interacts with. As a result he is not only respected, but loved by all. Willowbrook is a better place because Merel is a part of it.”

WMS Teacher Mike Rhines, another in a long line of many who holds the highest respect for Mr. Wilson, explains why he is like a Swiss Army knife.

“He drives his bus route every morning and afternoon for both the middle and elementary school. After his morning route he comes to Willowbrook Middle School where he spends the rest of his day until the afternoon route.”

“Once entering our doors he changes his hat, dons his cape and helps the custodial staff with everything from electrical to plumbing, to mowing weed whacking and literally everything in between. One minute he's hanging signs 25 feet up off the gym floor while reaching out over the EZ Lift. Next he is helping a teary eyed student find their lost backpack.”

“Halfway through each day, he helps man the lunchroom before putting on his coat to watch over our students during recess. We have seen him trudge with men a third his age through a foot of snow, in subzero temperatures. Then with compassion gifted from heaven above, he goes out of his way to help a staff member in need. Known as Mr. Wilson by some, and simply as Merel by many, he is a jack of all trades, and truly one of a kind. For these reasons we love him,” Rhines said.

Willowbrook Middle School Principal Jacqui Thompson led Mr. Merel Wilson down the hallway during a birthday walk. Students reacted by singing "Happy Birthday", followed by cheers and loud applause that filled the hallway.

Merel Wilson has been married to his wife Carol for 60 years. They have three children: Greg Wilson, Todd Wilson, and Angela Rising. They have four granddaughters and three great-granddaughters.

During the summer months, Merel and Carol head to East Dubuque, Iowa where he has a houseboat.

Mr. Wilson definitely deserves the accolades he has and continues to earn as he always goes above and beyond to help in any way he can.

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