William M. Powers, a lifelong educator, tennis player and consummate gentleman, died Jan. 31 in Needham at the age of 94.
He and his wife Sally were married 68 years. He was at home with her in Needham until the last week of his life.
Bill was born and raised in Newton but lived for nearly six decades in Needham, where he served as school superintendent for 18 years, from 1961 until his retirement in 1979. Before becoming a Needham school administrator in 1957, he taught in the Newton and Brookline public schools.
Bill served in the U.S. Army’s 106th Infantry Division in World War II and — unlike many in his regiment — survived the Battle of the Bulge. When his sons as boys would ask questions about what he had seen and done, he would often deflect their curiosity by saying, “War is a terrible thing.”
He was a devoted husband who even in his nineties often introduced his wife as “my bride.” After eating his bride’s home-cooked meals, he was known to toast her with the words, “Another success, Sally.”
He first noticed Sally Backman in a red sweater and plaid skirt at Hubbard’s Drugs in Newton when she was 18. On their early dates, they would walk to Brigham’s and — ever frugal — he would order them one ice cream cone to share. He kept every letter she sent him from Vassar College in a fat bundle in the back of a file drawer. Even as his own health grew more fragile, he worried first for her — making sure she did not overdo a walk or a planting session in her front garden.
He was very proud of his three sons and their wives: Bill Powers and Leslie Creedy in Newton, Ted and Pamela Powers in Natick, and Ben Powers and Nita Lelyveld in Los Angeles. He adored his two grandchildren, Jesse and Nicholas Creedy Powers.
Family and community were of great importance to Bill. He believed in lending a hand wherever he could and in trying to improve the world in which he lived.
On a broad scale, that meant a life of public service. He served as an alderman in Newton and a selectman in Needham and was a member of the Needham Town Meeting for 41 years.
More personally, it meant never letting a newcomer feel awkward in a room and never knowing that someone was hurting or in need without trying to help. When his sons were young, he would have them help shovel the snow in front of the house and then tell them to get in the car and go with him to shovel it elsewhere — at the homes of elderly people and others living on their own. When children in his extended family lost their fathers, he stepped in to fill the void as best he could.
Tennis was central to Bill’s life — from boyhood, when he learned how to play on the public courts in Newton’s Burr Park. He didn’t come from privilege — his mother had traveled to Boston from Norway to be a servant, his father was a chauffeur — so he was helped by the kindness of early mentors such as Al Rogan, who ran nearby Rogan’s Sporting Goods and would charge him just a few cents to replace a single string on his wooden tennis racket.
Tennis in time would take Bill and his family to tournaments and events around the country and in England, France and Bermuda. He was a member and an officer of Longwood Cricket Club, a regional vice president of the U.S. Tennis Association and was inducted into the USTA’s New England Tennis Hall of Fame.
Bill often told his family that tennis was like life — by which he meant that sometimes you played brilliantly, sometimes you didn’t, that patience and fortitude mattered as did fairness, good sportsmanship, collegiality and courtesy. Tennis certainly was built into family life at the Powers home on Scott Road in Needham, where Bill and Sally built a tennis court. It was the site of many a family match — and even after he could no longer play a game himself, it gave Bill great joy to watch his sons play each other in his own backyard.
Bill’s parents didn’t have the opportunity for higher education, though they worked hard to make sure that he did. He in turn worked tirelessly to convey the importance of education to those in his family and beyond. “Education,” he would tell his sons and grandchildren, “is the one thing that can’t be taken away from you.”
Bill never stopped learning himself. He was a voracious reader of books, newspapers and magazines — and led a current events discussion group at the local senior center.
He also wrote, mostly as an effort to examine the shape of his life — a memoir about his mother, poems about aging, tributes in verse and prose to Sally.
In the Needham schools, he was known as a progressive leader, who spoke out for tolerance and diversity and respect of people’s differences. He cared about his teachers and the practice of teaching and gave memorable speeches to his staff at the start of each year, hoping to inspire them and challenge them to do their best work.
In his private life, especially after his retirement, his speeches to the family — particularly on such themes as the importance of planning for the future and saving — sometimes elicited eye rolls and fidgeting in the moment, though his wisdom often later became apparent. Now that he is gone, his family is grateful for all the guidance he offered, which they will carry with them wherever they go.
In lieu of flowers, Bill would have wanted donations in furtherance of his core beliefs.
To support his commitment to education: Friends of the Needham Public Library, 1139 Highland Avenue, Needham, Mass., 02494 (friendsneedhamlibrary.org).
To support his commitment to community service: the Guatemala Partnership of the Needham Congregational Church, 1154 Great Plain Avenue, 02492 (http://needhamucc.org/serve/guatemala-partnership/).
A celebration of Bill’s life will be held in the Congregational Church of Needham, 1154 Great Plain Ave, Needham, on Friday, April 5th at 11:00 AM