It all came together for Willis Sanders when he was on official business recently as a director at Berkeley Electric Cooperative.

He was presenting an award to the teacher of the year on behalf of the co-op. His destination was to a high school near the co-op’s headquarters in Moncks’ Corner, SC.

It was Sanders’ own creation. The art and the award.

For decades as an educator, he gave away his art to his students, thousands of images, readily identifiable as his work by the signature image of a heart that can be found in each piece. He calls it HeART. It was always intended to be hs way of honoring others.

He has continued the practice as an electric cooperative director, generously offering and signing prints to members he meets at conferences and events. He often ends a co-op meeting or function by giving a print to a politician or a regulatory official. The other day at the high school it was especially delightful when the recipient was not only the district Teacher of the Year, but also a member of the co-op

It’s the essence of showing what cooperation looks like in its largest sense, Sanders said.

“Understand that none of this is about Willis Sanders. It is about purpose. Our purpose is to share our time, our talent and our treasure,” the 67-year-old Sanders explained.

As a kid, Sanders found that artful purpose in the quiet hours helping at his father’s grocery store in nearby Cross, SC. His dad showed him some Norman Rockwell illustrations and he set about trying to recreate them and drawing other subjects on paper sacks. It wasn’t only about sketching. He also learned how to keep customers happy and to apply math skills in making change or stocking shelves.

Graduating high school as valedictorian, he received a scholarship to a Connecticut art college, but his father counseled against it, advising him to study something practical. So, Sanders stayed in South Carolina, got his degree in math and followed it with a masters in teaching.

It wasn’t long, however, before Sanders began awarding his drawings as incentives to his students and those in the classrooms of his wife, Lillie, who taught at an elementary school. He is still giving art in her memory after her death in 1999. And he continued the practice as he rose up to leaderships slots at the school district as a principal and then as the assistant superintendent for human resources, responsible for the 2,000 teachers and 1,500 employees who served about 32,000 students.

“It was an enormous job,” Sanders said, but it also was preparation for co-op board service.

“I apply everything I learned in the school district right to the co-op. At the school district, I had to serve the school board so I was well acquainted with working with a budget, governance and accountability. Also, the broader values — teamwork, mission, setting goals and objectives, policies and procedures. Above all, not only working with others, but serving them.”

His retirement in 2013 coincided with Berkeley’s need to fill a vacant board position. Since he was already known in the community, the board invited him in for a meeting and then appointed him to fill the term. A few months later, Sanders was elected to the position.

“I didn’t know much about power. I grew up on a co-op line and was a long-time member of BEC, but I never thought much more about it than that. I knew their role in the community. That was what attracted me – a chance to continue to serve people,” Sanders said.

He also loves the challenge of helping run the 93,000-meter co-op and serving as the board’s statewide representative to The Electric Co-ops of South Carolina.

“It didn’t take me long to see what I didn’t know,” Sanders laughed. “I immediately started taking courses. The expectation of our board is for its members to get their CCD within the first year. As I was taking the classes, that’s when my eyes really opened up – especially the science and technical aspects.”

No stranger to politics from his school experiences, Sanders, who attended the 2017 Legislative Conference in Washington, DC, said he is intrigued by how much it factors into the energy and regulatory process. “This is very important and it extends to the state level and the whole country in many cases.”

He said he spends at least 20 to 30 hours a week on co-op work. “I will always be an avid learner, so I do take a lot of time reading and preparing for board work, but also about the industry. The more I know, the more effective I can be in my service. “

He doesn’t count those hours among the time he spends at his studio with pen, ink and paints, meticulously expressing his co-op involvement as art. He recently completed a series about light, depicted as bulbs filled with rays of electricity. He has produced a rendering of an older model pickup truck that is reminiscent, he said, of the early days when co-ops were turning the lights on throughout the state’s rural communities. He has a special lighthouse print that he says recalls the co-op’s duty to serve as a beacon of service. Lately, he has been giving newfound friends a drawing of an eagle that represents co-ops’ freedom and self-determination.

On his website, he has a page with dozens of photos of those he has given his art work.

“I call it my hall of fame,” he said. “Because they are the famous ones, those who deserve recognition. My purpose is to serve them all with my talent, my time and my treasure. That’s where the real art is. That’s why I call it HeART.”


What surprised you the most in joining the board?

What stood out was how much is involved in providing electricity from generation to distribution.

How much time does it take to do your duties?

This could be a full time job. Especially with my duties on the statewide. It is demanding with the committees. I estimate I am spending 20 to 30 hours a week.

Are you concerned that younger people are missing the message about rural electric cooperative?

We are living in a different world with social media and the idea of instant gratification. I actually think it is relative. What we need is more blending of young and old, veteran and inexperienced. That is something that lifts everyone. We can achieve this by reaching out to everyone on a co-op and human level.

As a director, what keeps you awake at night?

I am always thinking about rates, or rising costs – all those things of concern to a co-op, but I do rely on our CEO who is progressive and a great leader. If anything would keep me awake at night, it would be a hurricane!