In the last 20 years or so, if a bar in Fort Wayne held a karaoke night, there’s a good chance that a guy named Willie Fields showed up at one time or another.
Fields loved karaoke. He liked the old Motown songs, songs by Otis Redding and such, and he was a pretty good singer, too, people say. Some karaoke disc jockeys even kept a collection of songs in their inventory just for him.
Barbie Brown, who is a local karaoke disc jockey, first encountered Fields about nine years ago. She recalls there was a two-year period, though, when he disappeared.
Then, as quickly as he disappeared, he reappeared on the karaoke scene. At first people didn’t notice, but during his absence, Fields had had one of his legs amputated, apparently the result of diabetes, but he never bothered to mention it to anyone.
He’d dance and sing like nothing had happened, Brown said.
But it wasn’t karaoke that Fields was best known for. Wherever he went, he carried a sketch pad and charcoal pencils. He’d sit in bars, never drinking but sometimes wandering from table to table, sketching the people he saw. When he was done, he’d give his subject the sketch.
Some nights his sketches were good, and sometimes he’d have off nights when his sketches weren’t that good, people said, but when he was on his game, he could create some impressive drawings.
Sometimes people would pay him for the sketches, and sometimes they’d just take them. If you gave him money for a sketch and he thought it was too much, he’d give you some of the money back, Brown said.
Oddly, Fields often didn’t keep the money people gave him for his sketches.
He didn’t have much, said his son, Michael Thieme, but if you needed two or three dollars, he’d give it to you, even if it was his last $3.
Art is what Fields loved, Thieme said. He had studied art at Wilberforce University in Ohio.
Thieme recalls one day when his father grabbed a chunk of clay and quickly transformed it into a bust of John F. Kennedy.
Fields also painted murals and signs and other works around town, Thieme said. He’d done work for City Glass, Karen’s Antique Mall on Fairfield and the Oriental Grocery on Calhoun Street.
There’s no telling how many of his sketches are stashed away in drawers or boxes around Fort Wayne, sketches produced in places like O’Sullivan’s Italian Irish Pub, the Steel Mill tavern, the Latchstring, Foster’s sports bar, Pike’s, The Office tavern, the Warsaw Street market, McDonald’s and other places.
For all the people who knew him, though, Fields was somewhat of a mystery. He reportedly worked for the highway department or BF Goodrich, but even his son doesn’t know about that. Maybe he worked there before he was born, Thieme said.
Everybody knew him and no one knew him, said Brown, but he was awesome all the time.
Then, on Jan. 2, Fields, 68, died suddenly and unexpectedly. An obituary appeared in the paper, but it was only 40 words long. Word spread, though, and at his funeral, held last week, the church wasn’t big enough to hold everyone who showed up.
Still, some people are just learning about his death.
At O’Sullivan’s on West Main Street, a place where Fields was a regular on Tuesdays, some of his sketches are still stapled to the walls.
So on Sunday, from 2 to 8 p.m., O’Sullivan’s is going to have a sort of memorial karaoke night/fundraiser for Fields. The goal is to raise enough money to buy a headstone for Fields’ grave in Lindenwood Cemetery.
Fields had a passion for what he did, his son said, but as O’Sullivan’s manager Dave Seel noted, he never had a lot of money.