Returning to his old Chevy pickup after class in 1974, a folded piece of paper lodged under the wiper blade caught Harvey McWilliams’ eye. Opening the paper, he found an unsigned love poem written to him by another man.
In the years that followed, 18 of these love poems – romantic, erotic, euphoric and sad – found their way to McWilliams, most of them left on his windshield during the three years he taught drawing and crafts at the University of Richmond. More than four decades on, McWilliams still doesn’t know who wrote them, but suspects it may have been a student.
“I think it would be an English major because it was poetry and brilliantly written. I don’t know,” says McWilliams of his secret admirer. “It’s all a mystery, but the poems are beautiful, don’t you think?”
It’s a mystery that McWilliams is inviting others to ponder. Earlier this year, the 87-year-old published these verses as a slim, handsome volume titled “The Windshield Poems.” And beginning Nov. 11, the poems will undergo a staged reading at the Firehouse Theatre in the interest of developing the work into a full production next year.
An award-winning printmaker, painter, art curator, furniture and interior designer, McWilliams has long been a prolific presence in Richmond. He was the first person to receive a master’s degree in printmaking from Virginia Commonwealth University in 1969, created the interior of the original St. Mary’s Hospital when he worked for Miller & Rhoads’ commercial design department, served as curator for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ artmobile, worked as a graphic designer for the Virginia State Library and was an artist-in-residence for two years at the Glasgow House of the Richmond Intercultural Center for the Humanities.
In the early 1980s he founded Mainly Pasta, a takeout place in the Fan where he also cooked for more than 16 years.
“It was the first Italian takeout place in Richmond, and everybody still talks about it [because] the food was so damn good,” McWilliams says of the eatery that was at 2227 W. Main St. – a storefront that most recently housed chicken joint Mean Bird.
All of these life developments McWilliams’ secret admirer likely followed from afar. In 1990, nearly a decade and a half since the previous poem, McWilliams found the 18th and final poem outside his house. He can’t remember if he found it on his porch or under his windshield like the rest.
“Evidently, he knew where I lived,” McWilliams says. “I was quite surprised, and I love that poem.”
After recently revisiting the poems, McWilliams decided they were too good not to share. Enlisting the help of friend and designer Sarah Rowland, McWilliams set about turning the poems into a book with an initial run of 100.
“They were precious little pieces of paper for me, and [he] wrote them on all different pieces of paper, whatever he had,” McWilliams says of the poems. “They’re sad too. I think whoever it was was looking for some connection for love and affection.”
He notes that the mood at the University of Richmond was very conservative, especially when compared to VCU back then.
“When I went out there, it was a whole different atmosphere. I was the first person to ever have nude models in the drawing class. I thought probably I was going to get fired, but the students were very good about it,” he says.
In discussions about the book, a friend suggested turning it into a play, and McWilliams began working to bring it to the stage. A mainstay of the Firehouse, McWilliams used to cater opening nights, built the bar, helped with lighting, married his husband Ken Coleman at the theater and held Coleman’s memorial service there in 2017.
Directed by Firehouse associate producer Todd Labelle and starring Julian Allen and Robbie Winston, the staged reading will have seven performances, including two that will be livestreamed. Copies of the book will be sold at the theater.
Labelle says the poems “explore what it is to be a human being, what it is to love, to be infatuated, [and] explore what it was to be a struggling homosexual in the 1970s.”
“It wasn’t just a person who left a series of love poems. They really were confessions in a lot of ways, with his struggle with his own life and identity and being in love with somebody that he could not be with,” Labelle says. “In a time where the world is so crazy and things are so hard, I would not describe this as escapism, but maybe as ... an opportunity to reflect upon ourselves and how we treat our own emotions.”
In the forward to the book, McWilliams addresses his infatuated poet.
“Many times, I’ve wondered about this man. Who is he? Where is he? Did he ever find love? I hope so,” he writes. “To my secret admirer from afar; thank you. Your words touched me more than my words could ever express.”
“The Windshield Poems” plays Nov. 11-15 at the Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad St. For information, visit firehousetheatre.org/the-windshield-poems or call 804-355-2001.