The first. The oldest of the Hairston’s seven children, Willene, was the first to leave home. She laid the groundwork for her family’s legacy and took the first step in realizing the dreams and expectations of her parents. Willene attended a segregated school until fourth grade. But in 1957, she and her sister, Sue, started attending the now-integrated neighborhood school located in East Williamson where they grew up. This switch, though not perfect, was smoothed by the love and support of her mother and father, as well as the church and community in which they were so deeply ingrained. Having had excellent teachers at both schools, Willene said she was well prepared to go on to Williamson High School. There, she met home economics teacher, Mrs. Mildred Wooten, who taught her about sewing, cooking, design, child development and Berea College.
The Hairstons always knew college was in their future, though exactly how it would happen for this working-class family of nine was yet to be determined.
“When Berea’s door opened, it was someplace that really interested us, and we thought we’d feel welcome there. It would be a place that would take us where we wanted to go,” Willene said. “The liberal arts education and a Christian environment—we were already a part of that and wanted to continue that through growth, learning and understanding. So we have to give Mrs. Wooten credit for introducing us to that opportunity.”
In the fall of 1966, Willene stepped onto Berea’s campus for the first time, undecided on a major, but filled with hope, ambition and a continued love for music that would propel her through the next four years.
“It was challenging being the first time away from home like that,” she said, “but I knew I had to make it, and I had ambition and goals in mind, and I didn’t want to let my family down. But it wasn’t long until I acclimated to the environment because people were so nice, caring and helpful.”
Willene’s first labor position was in needlecraft, but she soon gravitated to the music department, and spent the next three years working in the music library while working toward a degree in music education.
She auditioned for and was accepted into the Chapel Choir under the direction of Dr. Rolf Hovey, who became an encourager and mentor to her and, eventually, to her whole family. She took organ, piano and voice, and played the carillon as part of her labor assignment. Willene also was part of the Polyesters, a female, a cappella group formed by choir members.
Having grown up in church, connecting with a community of believers was important to her Berea transition. She was part of Union Church’s Union Youth Fellowship that met on Sunday evening. With their bologna sack lunches from Dining Services, they studied together, served and built relationships with other students and community members.
By 1969, amid the unrest across the country following Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the African-American students needed a way of coming together, and music was one way. Willene helped create the Black Ensemble and was the group’s first director.
“It was a time of evolution and change for our country, and Berea students were engaged, and a part of
the change and letting the administration know that African American students were here and we wanted some things for us,” Willene said. “The Black Ensemble was an awesome way of filling in some gaps, pulling people together and creating unity.”
After graduating in 1971 with a music education degree, Willene went on to earn a master’s degree in music education from Eastern Kentucky University in 1975. She taught music in Williamson for 40 years before retiring in June 2011. Willene has been serving her church as either organist or pianist for 47 years and director of music/choirs for the past 28 years. She is married, and has three children and eight grandchildren.
“Berea nurtured us in many ways—intellectually, emotionally and artistically,” she said. “You learned a lot about people through those things. It was a place to belong.”