When Bill Lilly was 25, a recent graduate of the Zanerian College of Penmanship in Columbus, Ohio, he received an offer from the Truman administration to become the White House’s calligrapher, a role in which he would pen state dinner invitations and place cards. “I turned it down because, frankly, it didn’t pay enough,” the 92-year-old says with a chuckle from an armchair in his modest Columbus home. “It was equal to the union scale pay for a truck driver.”
One of only about a dozen master penmen in the U.S.—and the first to receive the honor, bestowed by calligraphy arts group the International Association of Master Penmen, Engrossers, and Teachers of Handwriting—and the last living graduate of the Zanerian College, Lilly remains an icon among handwriting aficionados, and a vestige of Columbus’s history as America’s cursive capital. From its founding in 1888 until the first half of the 20th century, Zanerian was America’s most prestigious handwriting program, an institution where students had to pen their own diplomas in order to graduate. In 1895, the Zanerian College became Zaner-Bloser, a handwriting education company that still sells instructional materials to schools. The school closed for good in the early 1960s, and in 1972, Highlights, the children’s magazine, acquired Zaner-Bloser.
Though clacking typewriters sounded penmanship’s death knell decades before Lilly graduated from Zanerian in 1952, by 2010, when the Common Core curriculum eliminated penmanship from public elementary schools, handwriting instruction verged on extinction. But over the past nine years, nearly two dozen states have reintroduced mandatory cursive writing—a movement driven, in part, by research showing that writing by hand is beneficial to brain development, motor skills, comprehension, and memory. “The neuroscience says that more areas of the brain light up when children are writing by hand,” says Kathleen Wright, a curriculum consultant and the former national literacy manager at Zaner-Bloser. “Handwriting activates areas of the brain needed for reading acquisition. It improves memory and motor skills and increases cognitive functioning.”
It’s no wonder, then, that Lilly’s Flourish Script, an ornate style of calligraphy—adorned with flowers, birds, and swirls—has kept him sharp. Ohio filmmaker Tim Courlas is currently working on a documentary titled Pushing the Envelope about Lilly’s life and the central role Columbus has played in the world of artful letters. “The movement to restore longhand is centered in Columbus, because that’s where it all began,” Courlas says. But for Lilly, it’s always been about the art. “I wasn’t even interested in the history of letters,” he says. “I just wanted to be the best script writer in the world.”