When I was 7 or 8 years old, hearing that name and seeing the face of Slugworth would send chills up my spine. Slugworth was the Severus Snape of my generation; the man in the glasses who got in the face of children and attempted to bribe them in order to get them to turn over the secrets to the wonders of the Everlasting Gobstopper. I felt like he was pressuring me when I watched "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory"; I could have been in the shoes of Charlie Bucket in that alleyway, having those beady eyes, that sharp voice, and that pointy chin getting in my face attempting to bribe me to turn over one of the candy industry's most mysterious secrets.
And much as you struggle internally that ultimately Snape is good, so it was with me for Slugworth when you discover that the eccentric Willy Wonka has actually hired this man to discover which of the children was the most pure, the most able to take over the world of whimsy and deliciousness when he passes on. The point of the Golden Ticket contest was a hope for Mr. Wonka, a hope that he could find the RIGHT person to take over for him when the time came for the maker to meet his Maker.
Because you see, being "The Candy Man" wasn't about making money to Willy Wonka.
Being "The Candy Man" was about bringing joy, about bringing warm feelings, about allowing your imagination to run free. The keys to the kingdom could not be just handed to anyone who wanted to make money, to someone who was good with business, or to someone who thought they knew what was best for a company. It had to be given to someone who saw the good, someone who wanted to bring light to the world, someone who knew the value of joy.
This afternoon I opened up Twitter and the tweet fourth from the top read "Gene Wilder, Star of 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory', dies at 83".
Suddenly, in that moment, I was sitting on the floor of the living room staring wide eyed at the television as Gene Wilder sang to me about a world of Pure Imagination.
"There is no life I know to compare with pure imagination..."
My sister Dawn especially loved Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory when she was a kid. She never tired of the movie, and as she grew older she held on to oft referenced quote:
"We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams..."
Those who have known Dawn a long time know that she has strived to overcome anxiety and is now - in my proud, big sister opinion - a rock star. She is an artist, she is a writer and a published author, she is a production coordinator and helps other artists display their work proudly. It has taken her a long time to get to where she is and she works hard to keep going and trying to continue to better herself, gain confidence, and above all else - never stop dreaming.
When she was in her late teens she had an opportunity to meet Gene Wilder. I remember her excitement leading up to the event - it was infectious. You couldn't help but be excited for her as the days ticked down to the day that she would meet the man who played a whimsical character on a screen and present his book for his signature. She wanted to thank him for playing the role of Willy Wonka, for the way he looked into the eyes of Veruca Salt and seriously told her that WE are the music makers and WE are the dreamers of dreams.
For much as Slugworth could have been talking to me in those moments - Willy Wonka might as well have been talking to Dawn.
When I asked what it was that he said (because it was not my life-altering moment to cherish), Dawn replied: "It was about the 'dreamer of dreams' quote. I was trying to say how much it meant to me. But I was really anxious back then & couldn't quite talk over my shaky tears. He held my hands in his hands and told me I was the dreamer, he could see my dreams, and that I shouldn't be scared anymore."
Two days later, Mr. Wilder passed away.
At the end of the movie as Charlie Bucket gently places his Everlasting Gobstopper on Mr. Wonka's desk. Quietly, and almost imperceptibly, Willy Wonka says as he placed his hand over the Gobstopper, he says "So shines a good deed in a weary world."
Without a simple sentence - a good deed - my sister Dawn might not be who she is today.
It is rare, so rare, that the simple kindness of a celebrity can make a difference. What Mr. Wilder did for my sister that day, with that one simple act of patience and kindness, made an incredible impact on her life. When Robin Williams died, I was shaken because his movies and his characters were so a part of childhood. It was a strange feeling to me to feel that way when he died.
Today I shed tears at the passing of Gene Wilder, a man whose good deed indeed shone in the weary world of someone who I love and care for, a world that is shining today because of a candle he lit so many years ago. Scripture tells us in Matthew 5:15 that people, when they light a lamp, put it where it can light up the whole house and do not hide it under a basket. I do not know how Gene Wilder was in his day-to-day life, I do not know his faith, and I did not research him for the purposes of this post. What I know is that in a moment where he could have passed over my sister as a star-struck fan, he saw her nervousness and chose kindness, patience, and forever made a difference in her world.
That is truly the light we need to be to others.
Thank you for caring for my kid sister, Mr. Wilder, if even for just a moment. May your elevator ride to heaven be as beautiful as you ever imagined.