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.
Several years ago my Mom wrote her memoirs (and well-written they are, too, as you’d expect…don’t tell ME there’s no genetic component to writing ability!). Going forward, I’m going to post some excerpts here, and work to get them into shape to put them into book format for the family. Because my mother deserves to be remembered–and because I can help ensure she is.
OBITUARY FOR NINA MAE WILLETT, 1926-2013
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.