Who is The Willard Preacher?

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It’s around 12 o’clock on a sunny Tuesday afternoon. Gary Cattell is about to begin his work, as he does most days at this time. He has on his usual attire: a t-shirt, thick glasses, shorts (normally khaki, but today they are athletic), and ankle socks complemented with gray running shoes.

He has meticulously picked his spot at the base of the Willard Building steps, partially for acoustics, but mainly because crowds of students pass through the willard steps. As Cattell approaches the spot he has called home for nearly 30 years, he runs over the material in his head that he will cover for the day. He takes his position next to the steps with a plaza surrounded by bike racks and bushes.

The Willard Preacher is ready to begin.

As he delves into his daily sermon, people start to give him odd looks. Many will snicker, some will nervously smile, and others will place themselves on the extended stoop of the Willard building and quietly listen.

Soon after Cattell begins, students start to argue with him. A group walking to class — probably freshmen — whisper among themselves, trying to figure out who this man is. Another student passes, at least half of Cattell’s age, and yells obscenities as he walks up Pattee Mall.

He doesn’t care though. He knows most of his dissenters won’t take the time to understand him. Indeed, few actually realize that Cattell is actually one the most down-to-earth people you could ever meet.

Cattell enrolled in Penn State in the late 1970s but was only enrolled for a little over two years. “Back at that time I wasn’t Christian,” he said. “I was doing a lot of partying and stuff. It came down to choosing between continuing to go to school, or continuing to party. I chose to stop going to school unfortunately.”

Soon after Cattell became a Christian — more specifically the Eastern Orthodox sect — he began preaching in November of 1982. He says that he got a calling from God telling him to preach what he believes to be the one true religion.

Cattell says that he is not trying to force Christianity on students, or act as an extremist. He’s just trying to help “show the way” in an increasingly secular campus environment.

The tradition of campus preaching did not start with Cattell, though. The Willard Preacher was established while Cattell was still enrolled as a student. “There was actually a person here before me. His name was Bro Cope, and he started mid-70s I guess and I heard him when I was a student here,” Cattell said. “When I got my calling I just picked it up here because he was here.”

Bro (yes you’re allowed to laugh) Cope preached at the Willard steps from 1976-1982. When Cattell started in the early 80s, the pair split time. As the years went by however, Cope couldn’t afford to continue preaching, so he left to re-eneter the computer field.

“I would be preaching where Gary is standing, and he would wander in,” Cope told the Collegian several years ago, describing Cattell as “a long-haired hippie freak.”

The stigma associated with street preaching is not usually a positive one. Plenty of people believe that Gary is just another radical ranting about the end of the world. Of course, they could not be more wrong. Cattell was actually raised in the area and still lives outside of State College with his family.

Cattell remains sustainable though private donations made to continue his ministry, and his wife teaches in the public school system and previously home schooled their four children.  His oldest son is in the Air Force, his oldest daughter studies in England, his youngest daughter works in Harrisburg, and his youngest son just enrolled at the University of Kentucky this past semester.

So next time you walk past Willard and overhear stories of moral direction which condemn “partying and fornication” don’t be so quick to judge. Everyone has a backstory and a reason for who they are. Because he is more than just the Willard Preacher. He is Gary Cattell.

Photo By: Eric Weiss

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