…the eulogy I wrote for my father, James Lee Willett, who died five years ago.
EULOGY FOR JAMES LEE WILLETT, 1926-2002
James Lee Willett was born January 9, 1926, in Mesilla, New Mexico, to Ewan Chambers Willett and Bessie Brown Willett. He received his elementary education at Burkburnett, Texas, and his secondary education at Coffeyville, Kansas.
He attended Harding College, in Searcy, Arkansas, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Bible and social studies, with minors in English and education—and met his future wife, Nina Mae Spears. (They were both riding home for Christmas, 1944, with the same boy—and since they left at three o’clock in the morning, they enjoyed telling people in later years that they met in the back seat of a car at three in the morning!)
James and Nina were married on Christmas Day, 1945, in Coffeyville, Kansas. They were both 19 years old. Nina worked as a secretary while James finished school, graduating in 1947.
In August of that year James and Nina moved to Hedley, Texas, a little cotton town of about 600, where James started preaching for the Church of Christ and teaching fifth grade. James and Nina’s first son, Jimmy Lee, was born in Hedley on November 6, 1947.
In the fall of 1950 James and Nina moved to Fullerton, an oilfield town in West Texas, where James preached full time for about 10 months. The next summer they moved back to Nina’s hometown of Butler, Missouri, where James taught for seven years at Ballard School, the same school Nina had attended. James taught Grades 7 and 8, all subjects, for two years, then for the next five years taught all the high school English and served as vice-principal. He also started a choral music program, directed plays and sponsored the senior class. James and Nina’s second son, Dwight Arthur, was born during James’s time at Ballard, on July 20, 1954.
In 1958 the family moved to the desert town of Lordsburg, New Mexico, where James taught music in Grades 6 through 8 and was librarian in a school whose student population was 80 percent Mexican, most of whom weren’t fluent in English. James also preached for the church of Christ in Lordsburg for a few months, then started driving to Duncan, Arizona, and preaching for them.
After one year in Lordsburg the family moved from the desert up into the foothills of the Rockies, to a copper mining town called Bayard, where James preached full-time for two years. James and Nina’s third son, Edward Chane, was born in Silver City, New Mexico, on July 20, 1959.
Because Jim was old enough to start high school and James and Nina did not want him to attend the high school in Bayard, James applied for a job at Lubbock Christian School in Lubbock, Texas. James was hired to teach Grade 9 Bible, English, mathematics and a few other subjects, and in 1961 the family moved to Lubbock, where James also took a job as preacher for the church in New Deal, Texas. A year later a group from New Deal started a new congregation, Sunrise Church of Christ, on the north side of Lubbock. James preached there for two years and led singing for another two.
James started the choral program at Lubbock Christian High School, beginning the first year with seventh, eighth and ninth grades. Over the next two years he dropped the seventh and eighth grades and added the upper high school grades, but those initial seventh, eighth and ninth graders were in his chorus for four full years. They became a very fine singing group, touring the Panhandle of Texas and New Mexico and making the school’s first record.
James also coached junior high basketball, started the pep club and sponsored them, and sponsored the “Young Timothys,” a group of boys who were interested in becoming preachers or other church work. He sponsored the student council most years and the senior class all four years.
The impact James had on the students at Lubbock Christian High School is best expressed by the framed parchment they gave him when he left, signed by students and staff, which hung in a place of honor in his home for the rest of his life. It reads:
“There was always someone who was there to help.
“There was always someone who was there for those who needed guidance.
“There was always someone there willing to work and see that the job was done. That someone was you – James Willett.
“You have found your way into our lives and showed us how to be better men and women.
“You have showed us how to lead and what is of more importance, how to follow.
“You will always be with us brother Willett and there will always be a special place just for you within our hearts.
Lubbock Christian High School, 1964-65.”
In 1965 James and his family moved to Tulia, Texas. For two years, James directed the junior and senior high school choirs and taught some classroom music. He started a string class with the help of music students from West Texas State College in Canyon, Texas. James also taught a high school Bible class and led singing for the church, which named him one of its deacons.
One Wednesday night a couple of men from Weyburn showed up at a service seeking funds for Western Christian College. James was interested in returning to a Christian school, so he asked if they needed a music teacher—and they said yes. James wrote to Dan Wieb, who was then president of Western Christian College, and he sent James information about the school.
To James’s surprise, the man who had been directing the chorus was Max Mowrer. He and his wife, Mildred, had been good friends of James and Nina’s at Harding, going out to preaching appointments together.
After much prayer and soul searching, James and Nina decided to move to Western Christian College, without ever having seen it. Their first glimpse was not encouraging: the old airport buildings hadn’t been painted for years, there were no trees, and all the roads were gravel. It was almost enough to make them turn around and head back to Texas. But the warm welcome provided by the people more than made up for the unprepossessing surroundings, and Western Christian College became their home for the next 22 years, which James later called “some of the best years of our lives,” and the years in which he felt he accomplished more than in all the rest of his life.
James directed the chorus, coached basketball, taught Bible, served at various times as vice-principal, dean of students and registrar, and one year was a member of a committee of four who administered the school between presidents.
James started a pep club and sponsored it for many years; became Grade 12 sponsor and sponsor of the student council (and remained sponsor until he retired) and sponsored the yearbook for many years as well. He started and directed many small musical ensembles over the years, including Skylarks, the Men’s Ensemble, and the Folk Group.
But it was as director of the chorus that James had the greatest contact with and influence on students year after year, and on the churches across Western Canada and the northern United States that the chorus visited. The annual spring-break chorus tour became a tradition that saw the choir sing on the floor of the state legislature in Helena, Montana, twice and once for the lieutenant-governor of Alberta in his chambers. The chorus made several recordings, and became known for its excellence year after year. Western soon earned a reputation as a “singing school.” Many years most of the students at the school were in the large chorus, open to anyone who enjoyed singing, and a quarter or more would be in the auditioned small chorus.
James also had tremendous success as a basketball coach. His teams won five provincial championships and participated in the provincial playoffs without winning another five times. The very first team he coached, in 1968, was the first provincial championship team in the school’s history. When the team won provincials in 1980, James’s son Dwight, who a few years before had played on James’s teams, was the assistant coach. James was honored with the Saskatchewan High School Sports Association Service Award in 1986 in appreciation for his years of leadership and contribution to Western’s athletic program.
In the summers of 1970 and 1971 James returned to West Texas State College in Canyon, Texas, to finish work on his Master’s Degree in Music Education. In 1972, James and Nina welcomed a foster son from Zimbabwe, William Chidowe, into their home.
Within the Weyburn church, James served as a deacon from 1969 until 1972 and as an elder from 1972 until 1998. He was the regular song leader for most of his years in Weyburn and often took his turn preaching, as well. He also taught Bible classes, as he had at every congregation he had been a part of since 1947.
James officially retired from teaching in 1987, but continued to teach part-time at Western for two more years, directing the chorus and teaching his two favorite Bible classes. He intended to carry on that way until he turned 65, but when the school moved to Dauphin, he and Nina decided they wanted to stay in Weyburn.
In the years since his retirement, however, James kept almost as busy as he had working full-time. For several years he taught Music 100 as an extension class from the University of Regina, and traveled to Regina weekly to sing in the Regina Philharmonic Chorus with his son, Edward. He continued to be an important part of the Weyburn Church of Christ, as an elder until 1998, and afterward continuing to teach, preach and lead singing as he was able, and to write and study.
For the past several years James had preached monthly at the Williston Church of Christ. The morning before his death, he delivered a 50-minute sermon there.
James’s hobbies included woodworking, photography, and, in the last few years, computers and the Internet.
James is survived by his wife, Nina, three sons and their wives, Jim, Dwight and Laurel, and Edward and Margaret Anne, and one foster son, William Chidowe. He is also survived by eight grandchildren and their spouses and four great-grandchildren: Jim’s two daughters and their husbands, Wendi and Kelsey Nordell and Keisha and Ken Patenaude, and Jim’s son Torrey; Dwight’s two daughters, Denae and Kamara; Edward’s daughter, Alice; and William’s daughters, Courtney and Keisha, and their mother, Natalie. James is also survived by four great-grandchildren, Wendi and Kelsey’s children Sheldon, Ross and Amber, and Keisha and Ken’s son Justin.
James Lee Willett will be remembered as a good and godly man who loved Christ, the church, his wife, his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren—and the hundreds of other people’s children whose lives he touched and influenced through more than 40 years of teaching and a lifetime of serving God.
UPDATE: You can download and listen to a few of Dad’s sermons here.