An Interview With The Willard Preacher
Gary Catell is his real name but when he is in his usual location outside of the Willard building, he is known as The Willard Preacher. When most people hear the name “Willard Preacher,” it brings about more negative than positive feelings; the result of rumors and stories passed on from one class to the next. His sermons do not revolve around historically traditional religion, but around modern religious views and trends. Our generation, the beliefs and behaviors that we have are the main focus of his sermons because we are, after all, his main audience.
When I sat down to talk with Gary, he told me a lot about his life and about his past and his potential future. The students of Penn State have been his regular audience for more than 32 years now, since November of 1982. Before Gary, they followed a different preacher, one who went by the name of Bro Cope. Bro started preaching in 1977 in the same location that Gary now occupies, and eventually passed the reigns off to him. Gary heard of the preacher when he began school at Penn State in 1979, but only become increasingly more interested in preaching himself around the beginning of his junior year.
The legacy of The Willard Preacher began when Gary, 25 at the time, approached Bro Cope while he was preaching and asked, “Do you mind if I speak?” Bro Cope said yes to Gary’s request, and Gary jumped up onto the concrete wall in front of the Willard building, taking Bro Cope’s place.
He stood, posed like a statue, atop the concrete wall looking over the masses of students walking by. He had everything planned out in his head; his topic, where he wanted to go with that topic, the whole gist of his first sermon. It seemed like forever before he got the first word out. “I was pretty much scared to death,” Gary laughed. But once he started speaking, the words flowed like honey, and ever since that day, Gary Catell has never once looked back. Now, 32 years later, Gary is still preaching in the same place almost every day of the week, even in the freezing temperatures of early March.
After a bit of research, I discovered his website, https://thewillardpreacher.com, along with the book he wrote entitled The Christian Vs. The University. I soon approached him, confident that I knew enough background information about Gary to talk with him, and asked if he would sit down for a quick interview. He was happy to oblige and we later met inside the Willard building to talk.
One of the first questions I asked Gary was about the pictures featured on his website. The picture shows him surrounded by a moderate sized group of students who seem to be listening intently to whatever he is saying. When I asked him why there aren’t crowds now similar to the ones photographed, he responded by saying the larger crowds usually occur when there is an argument or an event taking place (such as the Coming Out Day, which is held outside of Schwab Auditorium, just across the street). “People usually like to see a good fight, not necessarily for the content, but for the fight itself,” he told me. Luckily, he hasn’t had many of those so far this year.
Instead, the main people to stop and listen to him talk are people he likes to call his regulars. “I wouldn’t call them followers because they don’t usually agree with me,” he told me. The number of regulars tends to vary from year to year according to Gary, but it is usually around 10 or so students that he knows by name and whom he talks to.
As for his sermons, Gary told me, “I pick a starting point and see what happens from there.” Normally his sermons revolve around multiple ideas, sometimes brought about by the news or other events, which blend into each other. His topics are not different every day (you aren’t the only one who notices that he tends to repeat himself, he is well aware of it too) but he tries to keep them relevant, interesting, and most importantly thought provoking.
There are so many buildings around campus that you may ask yourself, “Why Willard?” Well, Bro Cope originally picked the site because of the foot traffic and the fact that nearly everyone has a class in Willard during their college career. Gary likes the spot because he feels his voice echoes off the walls of the buildings around him. The windows of the building are almost always closed as well, showing that he is conscious of trying not to disturb the classing going on inside.
“If you stay in one place
While some people might find what he does annoying, there aren’t many ways to get rid of him. Gary told me a story of a time in the spring of 1999 when the University wanted to designate areas, which they called “free speech zones”, for people like Gary to do what he does. The only problem was they decided not to make Willard one of these free speech zones. Gary stayed; the police came to speak to him a couple of times, as did the administration, to discuss relocating him to a different, approved spot. The University decided to put things off until after the summer, but by the fall it seemed as though they had changed their minds. “They wish I wasn’t here but they can’t do anything about it,” Gary said. “That’s because
So now, he and the University have an unspoken agreement of sorts and Gary doesn’t plan on leaving anytime soon. When I asked if he had ever tried to preach for any larger crowds or at a different venue, he told me he tried to in front of Patee Library once or twice, and also in Washington D.C. But he is happy where he is for now, so expect to hear and see him in the future. Who knows, he could still be doing his thing when your kids are students here!
One thought that intrigued me was how does he make a living off preaching in front of college students every day? Does he have any side jobs? Does he get paid by anybody? Turns out, it isn’t easy but he makes it work somehow. Gary does not get paid by the University at all. He gets a small stipend from a downtown church which he told me “isn’t much.” Mostly, he gets donations from people who “come by here and have been effected positively and want to see
His wife is a substitute public school teacher in the Bedford area so she helps pay the bills as well. With four children, I still find it hard to believe they were able to send them all to college or technical school. All of their children were homeschooled (mostly by his wife) and one of his daughters even attended Penn State while Gary was the preacher. Imagine your father being The Willard Preacher…weird, isn’t it? Additionally, Gary has taken many part-time jobs during the summers to make ends meet, to support his family, and to continue doing what he loves.
Thanks in part to social media, the news, and word of mouth, we have seen Gary verbally abused, teased, heckled, challenged, and made fun of countless times over the past few years. So the one question I knew I needed to ask him was, “Why do you keep coming back?” Why, despite everything you go through on a day to day basis, despite everything that has happened in the past and everything that will happen in the future, why do you continue to preach?
This is how he responded, “It’s what I believe I’m called to do and what people need to hear. How they take it is up to them, I guess. Some of the things I talk about, people don’t really talk about anymore. People aren’t really challenged anymore. They like to feel comfortable and not hear that some of their core beliefs are wrong. But I see some people resonate with what I say, or they start to question their own beliefs when they hear something I say. That is why I keep coming back.”
Despite what he preaches, I like The Willard Preacher. His past has been filled with lots of hard work and eye opening lessons. And just like most of us have been affected by our past experiences and by the words of those who came before us, so has Gary. I challenge you to give him a chance for once. Stop and listen to what he has to say. You may not agree with him, but you have to give him credit for standing up for the things he believes in. The Willard Preacher is not what he is rumored to be, he is kind hearted man who is doing what he loves not only for his own benefit, but for the benefit of others. Despite what you may believe, he is one of us, and he always has been.