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CAPE Graduate Wins Poetry Medal

January 29, 2014 – William Sherrill '99 keeps his medal in a small red bag.

He hangs it on a door knob of his spare bedroom, and sometimes, he pulls it out. But mostly, he keeps it in the bag because he knows it's safe.

He received his medal in November at Poetryfest, a national conference sponsored by a new nonprofit corporation. According to its Facebook page, Poetryfest is "dedicated to discovering the best poets of our time and creating an ever-widening audience for them."

That includes William.

He got accepted and flew to Reno, Nev. He stayed for two nights at a Motel6.He couldn't afford the conference's pricey hotel, and he spent $1,000 to fly to and from Reno. It was his first plane flight since 1980. On his flight home to Greensboro, he wore his Poetryfest medal around his neck, and showed it off to everyone who asked.

Two months later, as he lounges in a sparsely furnished, three-bedroom house in Greensboro, he cradles his Poetryfest medal in his big hands. It looks no larger than a half dollar. But the medal is huge to him.

"My prayers have been answered," he tells me. "I became somebody."

I had heard William was the youngest son of a sharecropper, the ninth of 10 children. When we caught up on his couch, William told me he grew up in Catawba County. His dad later became a preacher, his mom a maid, and he joined the Air Force at the tail end of the Vietnam War.

He saw the Air Force as his ticket out of poverty. Then, he talked about getting stabbed.

In January 1989, he said a relative stabbed him with a butcher knife in Newton, a small town in North Carolina. He nearly died. He lifted his shirt and showed me his snake of a scar - at least 18 inches long, running from his right shoulder, across his chest to his waist.

The butcher knife punctured his lung, his liver and his diaphragm.

What remains is an indention in his skin, no bigger than a quarter, just beneath his right shoulder blade.

"The doctor told me, 'After we operated, that was all we could do. It's up to God,"' he said. "But that man saved my life. 0l' William Sherrill. Could've been buried and gone."

William is defensive tackle big - 6 feet 1, 283 pounds. When he wants to make a point, he talks loud and fast. So, he talks loud and fast often when asked about his life.

His marriage failed. He hardly hears from his son,who's 41. Meanwhile, he stayed in the Air Force for nine years and retired as a staff sergeant after being medically discharged when he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

He drove a cab and didn't make much money. He got a license to be a funeral director, and he couldn't get hired. And more than 30 years ago, he left North Carolina for the big city of Baltimore to live closer to his two sisters. He ended up homeless.

But 16 years ago, he started to write poetry to make a little money. He didn't make much. But he rediscovered his passion with words, and he wrote rhyming poems about everything from the months of the year to what his dad used to tell him, "You carry a light."

At age 50, William graduated from Shaw University with a degree in sociology. And now, at age 64, he lives in a house he bought in 2004 beside a cul-de-sac.

He takes medicine every day to keep his paranoid schizophrenia in check, and he gets by every month with the help of his Social Security and military benefits.

Meanwhile, he writes. He writes poetry, and he writes songs. He writes them in longhand, and he writes them on a typewriter. And on a bedroom door knob, in a small red bag, he keeps his Poetryfest medal for anyone to see.

Ol' William Sherrill.


This story was written by Jeri Rowe and originally appeared on on January 29, 2014.