From Marvel to Music, the Life of William Wrigley

From a coffee addiction in Italy to almost being a hip-hop superstar, art teacher William Wrigley finds ways to incorporate his action-packed life into his everyday lessons.

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By Sasha Socolow

Art Appreciation is always a memorable class for freshmen. It’s one of the few classes at Stuyvesant that encourages students to be creative. Many look back and remember certain art pieces they connected to or artwork they created for the class. However, art teacher William Wrigley makes his class stand out for an additional reason: anecdotes about his life that are so absurd, they seem impossible to make up.

Many of Wrigley’s students talk about his outlandish personal stories from when he was a young adult, which hold a certain charm that easily enchants listeners. “I’m not afraid to show my silliness sometimes with students,” Wrigley explained. When asked to provide an example of his anecdotes, he replied, “Are you talking about the time that I had so much coffee that the Italian military police were involved, or are you talking about the time that I failed a music career because I was in grad school?”

Many of Wrigley’s stories happened when he was in his 20s. He spent a part of those years in a summer art program in a small town in Italy. Though Wrigley did not drink alcohol or partake in drugs, he was addicted to another substance: coffee. One night at a bar on the top of a mountain, the owner offered Wrigley a very strong coffee drink, dubbed “rocket fuel.” That night, Wrigley drank cup after cup. “I had a lot of energy, and I was probably close to a heart attack, you know, that level of caffeine,” Wrigley recalled.

At that point, Wrigley decided to return to his art studio down the mountain for late-night painting and, filled with energy, ran at full speed down the mountain. “There was one corner I was going to have to turn before I would get to my studio,” Wrigley said. “And when I turned it, two guns [came] up in my face.” Those guns were held by police officers, who asked him why he was running so fast. After catching his breath and processing what had happened, Wrigley answered, “I have just received news my grandfather is dead.” Wrigley expressed regret for telling this lie since his grandfather was alive, and he still feels horrible for saying otherwise.

A police officer offered his phone to Wrigley to call his parents, whom he quickly dialed. They later returned to find what they thought was a hostage tape. Still hyper-caffeinated, Wrigley said into the phone, “Hi, Mom and Dad. I’m just calling to let you know I’m safe and I love you and I hope I see you soon, but I can’t talk very long. They’ve got guns, and I’m nervous.” And then he hung up.

The story about Wrigley’s run-in with the Italian police is one of many he tells occasionally during class. When telling these tales, he highlights that even though they sound ridiculous, he would not be the same person without experiencing them. It all started when Wrigley was 17 years old. At the time, he won a regional spelling bee with a monetary prize. “I announced on the stage,” Wrigley said when asked what he would do with the money, recalling, “‘I’m gonna go to New York for the summer and I’m gonna see if I can work at Marvel Comics, and this will pay for my room for a summer, I hope.’”

Wrigley did just that and went to Brooklyn, New York, showing up on Marvel’s doorstep and offering to work for free until his prize money ran out. Wrigley gained much insight into comics from his experience there. “Everything that I teach in that comic course is something that was taught to me by, specifically, John Romita, who is one of the masters of Marvel’s history. But beyond that, that made me fall in love with New York,” he said.

Wrigley also became interested in hip-hop and tried to pursue a musical career. “I decided to actually start recording [hip hop]. It was when I had this friend who was interested in making beats. And we started putting stuff out on this website called mp3.com,” Wrigley said. “I actually made good money from mp3.com for about a year.”

During this time, Wrigley also started attending graduate school at Columbia University for Art History, where he and his friend decided against pursuing an advanced loan from a record label. Instead, they would pay for the costs of their career themselves. Wrigley was eager to jumpstart his musical career until the label company encountered a problem. “All sounded well until Napster happened. Napster was sort of the beginning of illegal file trading,” Wrigley said. “And the label that had been interested in us, which was a big label, BMG, lost a lot of money in the course of one quarter.” At the same time, he thought he would commit all his time to the label, so he requested a leave of absence from Columbia University. Wrigley was dropped from the label and the school would not allow re-enrollment.

At the same time, Wrigley fell in love with teaching and decided to embark on that career. New York was also where he met his wife. Wrigley feels that his decisions and the way his life played out led him to where he is today. “If I hadn’t won that spelling bee, […] I would be a different person than I am now. That really set my course,” Wrigley commented. That is the message Wrigley tries to convey when telling these stories to his students. “Really, take those chances,” Wrigley encouraged. “Apply for those scholarships, apply for those spelling bees, do those debates. Don't worry about your resume, but look for opportunities.”

Wrigley also tells these stories to get closer to his students and connect to them more directly. “I don’t like being up on the pedestal behind the microphone,” Wrigley explained. “And if I can make the students laugh at something that happened to me, I think that’s cool.”

Many of the students who have had Wrigley look back on their memories in his class fondly. At the very least, it’s evident that Wrigley is effective at capturing the imagination of his students through his inspiring and entertaining tales.