Obituary for my mother, Nina Mae Willett, 1926-2013

I’m very sorry to report that my mother, Nina Mae Willett, died yesterday morning in Weyburn at the age of 87 years. Here is the obituary I’ve written for her for the Weyburn Review.


Mom Christmas 2012 lighterNina Mae Willett died peacefully in her sleep on the morning of May 30, 2013, at Crocus Plains Villa in Weyburn. She was 87 years old.

Nina Mae Willett (nee Spears) was born May 2, 1926, in Bates County, Missouri, to Roy Edward Spears and Laura Edwin Spears (nee Umstattd). She grew up on an 80-acre farm with four brothers and four sisters, and received her elementary education at the one-room Fairplay School, half a mile south of their house, and her secondary education at Ballard High School in Ballard, Missouri, from which she graduated in 1944.

Because she was valedictorian of her high school class, Nina received a half-tuition scholarship to attend Harding College in Searcy, Arkansas, where she studied secretarial skills, including shorthand, typing, accounting and English. She met James Lee Willett at Christmas time in 1944 when they both rode home with a fellow student. (In later years they liked to say they met at 3 a.m. in the back seat of a car.)

Nina and James were married a year later, on Christmas Day, 1945, in Coffeyville, Kansas. They were both 19 years old. Nina worked as a secretary at a law firm while James finished college. In August of 1947 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.

On March 10, 1950, a second baby, Susan Elizabeth, was born prematurely and died during childbirth. Later that year James and Nina moved to Fullerton, an oilfield town in West Texas, where James preached full time for about 10 months. In January, 1951, another baby, Dennis Edwin, was born prematurely and also died.

The next summer James and Nina moved back to Nina’s hometown of Butler, Missouri, where James taught for seven years at Ballard School, the same school Nina had attended. Nina took and passed the State teachers’ exam, which allowed her to be a substitute teacher in the one-room schools. She also substituted for the high school bookkeeping and typing teacher for almost three months one year. James and Nina’s second son to survive, Dwight Arthur, was born in Ballard on July 20, 1954. After that Nina did very little teaching, not only because of the needs of the new infant, but because she was beginning to suffer from joint pain, eventually diagnosed late in 1955 as rheumatoid arthritis. Partly in the hope that the desert climate would help her symptoms, in the summer of 1958 the family moved to the desert town of Lordsburg, New Mexico, where James taught and preached.

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 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 took a job at Lubbock Christian School in Lubbock, Texas, moving there in 1961. Nina went to work at Texas Tech in the English department (after scoring 100 on a spelling test that was part of the job application process, the only person to do so in the memory of the test administrator).

In 1965 James and Nina and their three sons moved to Tulia, Texas, where James taught and Nina worked as a secretary in the Swisher County judge’s office in the courthouse.  James also taught a high school Bible class and led singing for the Tulia Church of Christ. At one Wednesday-night service two men gave a presentation about Western Christian College, then located at North Weyburn, for which they were seeking funds. James was interested in returning to a Christian school, so he asked if they needed a music teacher—and they said yes. To James and Nina’s surprise, it turned out 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.

After much prayer and soul searching, James and Nina decided to move to Western Christian College, without ever having seen it. Their first glimpse of North Weyburn was not encouraging: the old Commonwealth Air Training Command 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. Early on Nina worked in the business office of the school; later she worked at a variety of secretarial jobs in Weyburn, including for the Public School Board and several years for Social Services.

Throughout this time, and until just a few years ago, Nina wrote hundreds of letters annually, not only to family but to friends, missionaries and others. For many people, her letters were the best means they had of keeping tabs on old acquaintances from Weyburn and elsewhere. Within the family, any time anyone needed to know what had happened to a family member or how to get hold of him or her, the answer was always, “Ask Mom/Grandma/Nina! She’ll know!”

James officially retired from teaching in 1987, although he taught part-time at Western for two more years. He intended to keep doing so until he was 65, but when the decision was made to move the school to Dauphin, he and Nina decided they would remain in Weyburn.

James died in April 2002, and Nina continued to live in their apartment on her own until the summer of 2011, when she moved into Parkway Lodge. After an extended stay in hospital early this year, she moved into Crocus Plains Villa, residing there just a few weeks before passing away peacefully in her sleep on the morning of May 30.

In addition to writing letters, Nina loved reading (prior to her last stint in the hospital she was averaging 12 books a month) and visiting with her family and her many good friends in Weyburn. She was a faithful member of the Church of Christ for more than 70 years, rarely missing a service if she was at all able to attend, a fixture for many years in her familiar place in the second row.

Nina was predeceased by her parents, four brothers (Elwin, Buddy, Buster and Asa), three sisters (Mildred, Lois and Elizabeth), two children in infancy (Susan Elizabeth and Dennis Edwin), and her husband, James. She is survived by one sister, Dora; three sons and their wives, Jim Willett and Cindy Slowinski of Edmonton, Dwight Willett and Laurel Stein of West Vancouver, and Edward Willett and Margaret Anne Hodges of Regina, and one foster son, William Chidowe of Yellowknife.

She is also survived by ten grandchildren and their spouses and six great-grandchildren: Jim’s two daughters and their husbands, Wendi and Kelsey Nordell and Keisha and Ken Patenaude, and Jim’s son Torrey and his wife, Carrie, plus Jim’s stepchildren Kaleigh and John Slowinski; Dwight’s two daughters, Denae and Kamara, Denae’s husband, Colby Elford, and Kamara’s partner, Peter Greenall; Edward’s daughter, Alice; and William’s daughters, Courtney and Keisha, and their mother, Natalie. In addition, Nina is survived by six great-grandchildren: Wendi and Kelsey’s children Sheldon, Ross and Amber; Keisha and Ken’s son, Justin; Torrey and Carrie’s son, Oliver; and Denae and Colby’s son, Emmett.

Nina Mae Willett will be remembered as a loving mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and friend, with a beautiful smile, a sharp mind, a strong will, and an unshakeable faith in the goodness and greatness of God. She will be sorely missed by everyone who knew her.

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    • on June 5, 2013 at 10:03 am
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    Thanks again, everyone, for all your kind thoughts. We appreciate it.

    • Mary Ann (Spears) Mathis on June 4, 2013 at 9:16 am
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    Aunt Nina was a beautiful, smart and sweet woman. She wrote the most beautiful letters and I have kept every one she wrote to me. Fond memories will always be with us. I can remember when Jim and I were little and we’d run under the quilt my Mom, Aunt Nina and Grandma Spears were working on in Grandma’s front room. No one yelled at us which is still amazing to me.

    • Twyla Kot on June 3, 2013 at 6:05 pm
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    Ed, Dwight, and Jim,
    As I read your tribute to your Mom I was reminded of her strength and wisdom. Many times your Mom would offer me encouraging words in her own gentle way. Thanks for sharing some of her memories. Both of your parents were inspirational to so many. My sympathy to you and your familes.

    • Ralph Williams on June 3, 2013 at 2:48 am
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    Thank you for posting this. We were blessed by their decision to come to Western.

    • Russell Ferris on June 2, 2013 at 7:37 pm
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    Jim, Dwight and Eddie,
    Your mom’s loving kindnesss and faith touched my life many times over. I fondly remember when she retired as the Weyburn church secretary and she gifted me with a new coffee pot for my office my office down the hall. Her welcoming hospitality whenever she entertained visitors in her home and her genuine concern for the people in her life touched many. Since leaving Weyburn, I have marveled how her birthday letters to my children arrived on their birthdates every year (for over 12 years). Each letter included gum for the kids and an update on the details and concerns of Nina’s day that enriched our lives. May God comfort and bless you and your families at this time.

    • Lisa Andersen on June 1, 2013 at 8:11 pm
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    It is so poignant to read of such a beautiful life! Your parents were genuine treasures!! Deepest sympathies to your entire family.

    • Sharon Olson on June 1, 2013 at 10:49 am
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    We will miss her, on the 2nd pew at the front of the church, her firm handshake and sweet smile, her wit. I remember her saying why she sat up at the front. She hadn’t been able to, because of the boys when you were small, and so she never sat with James in church because he was always leading singing. So when you were older, and I assume better behaved, she moved up so she could sit by her husband.

    • Kent Wieb on May 31, 2013 at 10:03 pm
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    Thanks for the trip down memory lane. I have such great memories of our youth and times at your home with your family. Still the best iced tea anywhere.

    • Phillip D spears on May 31, 2013 at 3:59 pm
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    So sorry for the loss of Aunt Nina. She had a long and wonderful life. She will be greatly missed but we can all be assured she is in a better place. God bless all her children and grand children.

    • Jim Hawkins on May 31, 2013 at 12:42 pm
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    What a wonderful obit. I have so many wonderful memories of your Mom, the many meals I shared that their home, and the good conversations. Even though I haven’t gotten to visit her for so long, she will truly be missed by all of us.
    May God bless you and all the family.

    • on May 31, 2013 at 12:14 pm
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    Thanks so much everyone for your kind comments. It means a lot. Dan and Dorothy, I didn’t know you’d been to see her on Saturday. I’m so glad!

  1. Thank you Eddie well written, very interesting. We remember many of your mom’s letters to our children. Great memories.

    • Dan and Dorothy Wieb on May 31, 2013 at 10:23 am
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    Thank you so much Edward. We will miss Nina as we have missed your father . We are so thankful that we were able to visit with her on the Saturday before she died. May God be with you all as you mourn her passing.

    • Leslie on May 31, 2013 at 9:58 am
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    A beautiful tribute to a wonderful lady. She was very loved by us all and will be dearly missed.

    • Rebecca Parry on May 31, 2013 at 9:56 am
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    Your mother was a beautiful woman! I will always remember her stopping by faithfully every day for coffee to visit with my grandmother. They were such good friends and she was so interesting and wonderful to visit with. Find peace in that she is home, no longer in pain. What a blessing to have known her.

    • Doirs SIS May on May 31, 2013 at 9:54 am
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    Beautiful tribute to Nina. I recieved many letters and had great visits through the years and I will miss those events. My heart is sad and so glad as peace has come to Nina and being reunited with loved ones.
    You all will be in my thoughts and in my heart as you lay Nina to final rest.
    love, SIS

    • Milessa Elford on May 31, 2013 at 9:50 am
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    What a beautiful tribute to your mother, Ed! I was also a recipient of her birthday letters. I have many special memories of your parents. My sympathies to you and your family.

    • Carolyn Spears Goddard on May 31, 2013 at 9:08 am
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    I want to let you know what a great memory you have given me in your Mom’s life memorial. She was so good and just last month I was helping Mom go through all of her pictures and I made the remark Thank God for Aunt Nina she was the only one who wrote on the back of her pictures who the people, the year and their age. I know how much she will be missed. I wish in the later years she had been closer to Missouri, but that was not to be. On her last visit here I went on Sunday for the reunion and it had been on Saturday. I regret that to this day. God bless her entire family.

    • Michelle Mason on May 31, 2013 at 9:06 am
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    I’m sorry to hear this news. There are so many things I will remember about Nina. My children, for each birthday ,always received a letter, with a stick of gum and a two dollar bill in it. Our family’s favorite cookie is your mom’s receipe. The second favorite cookie is also your mom’s receipe. She is an example of love, dedication and a steadfast walk with the Lord. I will remember her fondly. May God bless you and your family, as you gather to celbrate her life and share many special memories..

    • Karen Kristianson Cooper on May 31, 2013 at 8:54 am
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    She was faithful, kind and a treasure first here on earth, and now in heaven.

    • Loreen Husband on May 31, 2013 at 8:34 am
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    Wonderful tribute to an amazing woman. Grandma Nina had lots of other “adopted” grandchildren. Even after we moved to Dauphin our children still got a birthday letter from her each year with money and a stick of gum included. Although we will miss her here on earth I am sure she is rejoicing in her pain-free new home on high. Our sympathies to the entire family.

    • Sharon Parker on May 31, 2013 at 7:14 am
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    Christian Sympathy to the family in your time of loss of a beautiful lady! Bob & Sharon Parker -Saskatoon

    • Pete Brazle on May 31, 2013 at 6:43 am
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    A wonderful tribute, Ed, to a great woman.

  2. I loved her, and have so many memories of her… From when I was little and we were neighbours, to when my children were little and we were friends. Remembering her today.

    • Barb Galler-Smith on May 31, 2013 at 1:09 am
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    Lovely story of a great life. I am so very sorry for your family’s loss.

    • Wendy Beckett on May 31, 2013 at 12:52 am
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    Eddie, that was beautifully written and shared so much of your Mom’s life that I felt, as I usually do after any memorial service, that I wished I had known her better. I didn’t see much of your mom during my time at Western, but I do remember enjoying times that were spent visiting her. I’m truly sorry for your loss. Yes, she will be missed.

    • Andorlie Hillstrom on May 31, 2013 at 12:44 am
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    What an interesting life your Mother had! She was a remarkable and courageous woman. Thank-you for sharing this.

    Thoughts and prayers are sent to you and the family at this difficult time,


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