On Wednesday (1 May 2013) I spoke at the funeral service for a good friend, fellow traveler, first cousin - once removed, Phyllis Willis. In her honor I am posting the notes I used in remembering her to our friends and family. These notes are unedited, at least for now, so please excuse any errors -- grammatical or otherwise.
It is a truism that funerals are more for the benefit of the living than for the one whose memory we honor. Because many of those who today honor her memory are here because of a relationship with Phyllis's family rather than directly with her, it is understandable that we follow that outline once again.
But in this case, and especially in this case, and for the edification of those who knew her only through her children or grandchildren, it is not only appropriate, it is necessary, even obligatory, that I began at least by telling you not just about what and who Phyllis Willis Willis was, but also about who and what she came from, and was a part of, and about what remained an essential part of her to the very end.
Some of the things I will speak of have been told, and some of you have heard them, many times before. But Phyllis never grew tired of hearing or telling them, and since it is in her honor that we are assembled today, I will proceed like she would have wanted me to, and like she told me to many times.
Phyllis was my first cousin once removed --- and for several reasons we felt even closer than that! I knew her all of my life, and for most of my life she was a regular part of it — and I would like to think that I was a part of hers.
I mention that because the matter of where she and I came from is what placed us on a path that would cross literally thousands of times in the years we shared together.
Her paternal grandparents, Joe Wallace and Margaret Willis, were my maternal great-grandparents. In short, my grandmother Bertha was her father’s sister. That relationship was far deeper than the bloodline itself would suggest. That is because something happened to Bertha when she was still a little girl that would have a profound effect on her soon to be born younger brother. In fact, his very name was in honor of the Mormon Elder who quite literally, by healing his sister, changed not just her life, but that of her parents and her brother from then and for forever — and we believe, for an eternity!
As late as when Phyllis could last bring herself to hear and listen, were you to have asked her to tell you who she was, or something about her, very early in that response she would have said something explaining that she was one of “Telford's crowd.”
If she had the strength and you had the time, she would have been glad to explain to you just what that meant. Because she no longer can, I will try to do it for her, and hopefully this won't be the last time it is told or remembered.
The Island on which she and I grew up was made up of what we called “crowds.” There was a time when those crowds were not just names but also neighborhoods. From Shell Point to Rush Point could be found crowds, even neighborhoods centered around family names like Yeomans, Davis, Rose, Gaskill, Nelson, Johnson, Hamilton, Fulcher, Russell, Salter, Fulford, Moore, Hancock, Styron, Brooks, Guthrie and Lewis ---and then even more Lewises and more Guthries. And finally everywhere, literally everywhere, there were Willises! So there were more crowds within the bigger Willis crowd.
And in that crowd of Willises, no crowd was more distinct than was the crowd that belonged to Telford Willis. For after he married Gertie Guthrie he built her a house, and there at the foot of Red Hill, between the oaks, the two of them raised a family — not just children, but a real family.
Scores of other men of Harkers Island did something very similar, but there was something special about Teff’s family, Teff’s crowd, for Teff was what he most often was called.
As his oldest son, Bertie Clyde, might have described that difference, “Always has been, and always will be!”
It was not just that he was a born leader - and he was (fishing crews, long-haul stations, or fish house positions).
It was not just because of his intellect and wit which were exceptional. (Tell the story of Brady Lewis building his boat).
And It was not just his powerful personality that set him apart and caused him to be mourned so intently that when he died to soon — with the whole Island weeping and wailing and a visible sadness that seemed to shroud the whole island like a somber veil.
No, it was more than that. It was I believe the combination of his personality and energy, with his enormous faith and spiritual devotion, the latter of which he somehow was able to instill into his children with a type of spiritual umbilical cord that was just as real, and not all that different, from how Gertie had nurtured them in her womb.
That is a fitting analogy, since when those children were infants the lay in bed beside both their mother and their father.
Bertie Clyde, Guy, Margaret, Francis, Joyce, Carol, and especially Phyllis, each in their own way became an extension of their fathers being.
As might be assumed, they were close to each other. When Fran or Bert or Guy came home, you could almost feel the whole generation swarming together at one or more homes or other places, and when it was time to go it was not all that unlike a funeral viewing as they bid their parting goodbyes.
But as each of them in their own way fashioned their own lives, there was something unique about Phyllis - what might be described as a special sensitivity that she was not just “a” link, but “the” link between the world of her parents and the world of her children, her nieces and nephews, and just as importantly, to an extended family, and especially to our church family.
Please don’t misunderstand me, as each of those siblings did their part, but time and space and distance do sometimes matter, and that was where, for those of us who were not Teffs and Gerties, that Phyllis played the most important part. She did that with Joyce and Carol always beside, but always standing just a little behind her, as she was the one who assumed he father’s role in the forefront of the family.
That was in no small part due to the fact that in terms of time and space and distance and place she was always there! To be even more precise, she was always here! She was always a part and in 100 ways she was always reminding us of who she was and why she was what she was.
When Phyllis married William Reed, from another Willis crowd, she still never skipped even a single beat in her assumed role as the heart and soul of the Telford Willis crowd. I imagine that might of posed some challenges for Bubble, as he was called, but she never let it slow her down, much less stop her. Eventually, after some initial kicking and screaming, her husband pretty much surrendered, and before long he was as much a fixture in the family as she was. Indeed somebody had to stay home and tend to the children all those nights and weekends that Phyllis was involved with the choir or with her extended family.
Let me add here that just a she and her siblings were a testimony to her parents and what they believed, I hope that her children and their children will remain a testament to her for many years to come.
Speaking of children, many here will acknowledge that in a very real sense, Phyllis Willis, had another child that was just as real as were her two sons and three girls — and only a little removed in terms of the role it played in her life and legacy.
That child was called the Harkers Island Girls Chorus. It was organized by another Mormon Elder (Elder John Thompson) when the girls were still in their early teens. And while Phyllis was still just an early teenager like the rest, she somehow became a vital part and eventually, and evidencing the spirit of her father, she became the acknowledged leader of that group.
I don't know that they ever voted or appointed her as such, but ask any of them then or now who was in charge, and they would not have the hesitated for even a moment in their response. When I was Bishop and somewhat involved in making their arrangements and schedules, I could talk to any of the ladies, even my own sisters, one of which had a pretty strong personality of her own, but they would always say, I'll check with Phyllis and then I’ll let you know.
[Tell the story of Joyce’s hesitation and Phyllis’s response of “You can and you will!”]
A decade ago an oft-repeated goal of the general leadership of our Church at the national and international level was to “bring the church out of obscurity.” I hope it will never be forgotten the vital role that the Girls Chorus played in our little corner of the world in bringing not just this ward or branch, but this church out of obscurity.
For years, our congregation was known as “the church were those girls came from,” as much or even more than as they being “some girls that came from our church.”
Literally all over Eastern North Carolina, in other churches, in government and civic events, and especially at funerals, they could be seen and heard and always were remembered.
O morn of you beauty, Today on the Highway,Master the Tempest is Raging, This is my Country, This I Believe, or I have a Testimony — just saying those words even now can summon up in many of us a mental image of those girls, ladies, women, old women, as they stand with their hands on each others’s waist or shoulder, tuning to a little "pitch pipe," then harmonizing and in parts, often a' capello, with Phil either standing in front and directing with her hand, or sometimes just standing at the end of the front line, leading with her exaggerated breathing, or just the movement of her head and shoulders; or if she was really intent, with the expression on her face!
I have lost count of the number of times that I have spoken at occasions like this, standing up after those girls sat back down, always hoping that my words could tap into the spiritual awareness that had been aroused by their sacred and sweet voices. One reason for their impact was that hey believed what they sang! For example, I share the words of this song that was one of their trademarks.
This I Believe!
As sung by the Harkers Island Girl's Chorus
In our home up in Heaven we were prepared
to come to earth as a goal
With earthly parents we would be shared
And cared for body and soul
The plan was laid up in Heaven
The choice was left up to men
To follow freedom or force commend
Which one did we defend?
This I believe, the Gospel was fashioned for men
That we might have joy in our earthly state
The live with God again
This I believe, we cherished the choice to be free
We followed our Savior who said with Love,
Come Follow Me!
In the last 30 years I have traveled extensively in Eastern North Carolina and throughout the state, and even the inter-mountain west. It would be impossible to number the times I have been asked, when someone learned where I was from or heard my accent, the following question. “Are those girls still singing together?”
Every time I have heard that, it was an unspoken tribute to the energy and diligence of Phyllis Willis.
It would be incomplete, even unfair, to focus entirely on her work with a chorus without mentioning the other service that she rendered – although usually much more in the shade than when she was displaying her musical talent.
She was always a leader, and never content to just sit back and not be heard or involved. This included gatherings of men as well as women, and was not just with the sisters of the relief society. Although she was usually a leader, she was always a self-starter, especially when it came to compassionate service for others, even though it was usually done in the shade, and no one other than her and the Angels knew just what she had accomplished.
What I do today is a "labor of love," but a labor none the less. One of the reasons I do is that Phyllis and the other girls taught me long ago by their examples that sometimes we have to do things like this, no because we enjoy it, or because it is easy, but because it is our obligation and duty. The funerals she participated in numbered in the hundreds. I am confident that there were times when she did not feel like doing it, or when she herself was one of those who were grieving, but it is to her credit that she never begged-off for any of those reasons.
When I served as Bishop, early on she taught me a lesson that served me well during the time that I had the responsibility for shepherding a ward, and then a stake. At 32 I had more energy than wisdom. I’d like to think that while I have lost much of that energy, that loss has been balanced by having gained at least some wisdom.
“Good judgment comes from experience, which often comes from bad judgment.”
One of those occasions of bad judgment was punctuated by a lesson that Phyllis taught me as together we pondered how to deal with a particularly difficult situation – one where it would have been easy to have dismissed the whole matter by saying that the person got only what they deserved. That was I was disposed to do, until Phyllis asked me to hear and then memorize a little couplet that she had relied on many times in similar situations.
“I have wept in the night, for the shortness of sight, that to someone else’s needs made me blind. But I never have yet felt a tinge of regret for being a little too kind!”
Which brings me ultimately to this question, "Who is entitled to the honor and blessing of being called a follower or disciple of Christ?" That is something that has been often and publicly discussed of late. Rather than looking to those definitions that others have volunteered I will mention the ones that Christ himself seemed to emphasize.
In the 25th Chapter of Matthew, only days, maybe just hours, before he offered himself up for sacrifice, he left a memorable lesson about he would separate his "sheep from the goats."
The Least of These!
31 ¶ When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory:
32 And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats:
33 And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.
34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
(New Testament | Matthew 25:31 - 40)
In my life, one that now spans sixty years, I have never known someone more willing, indeed more comfortable, at ministering to the "least of these" than was Phyllis Willis!
Love one Another!
3 Little children, yet a little while I am with you. Ye shall seek me: and as I said unto the Jews, Whither I go, ye cannot come; so now I say to you.
34 A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.
35 By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.
(New Testament | John 13:33 - 35)
Like the rest of us, Phyllis Willis had her weaknesses. She had her crosses to bear - some of which weighed so mightily upon her that she wondered if she could even bear them. She made her share of mistakes, which from what I could tell were always of the head and not of the heart.
But no one could ever accuse Phyllis Willis of not loving -- not just showing affection, but truly loving, No one would ever suggest that she was not answering the call to "love one another," sometimes she offered her love to those who never seemed willing to return it, but that became their burden to bear and not hers. If we are to take the Savior at his word, and I do, then by the standard that he proclaimed, the dear sister that we honor today was not only a sister, a cousin, a mother and grandmother --- she was also a disciple of Christ, and she was willing to do his work in serving others.
So, as we lay her to her rest this morning, let me one more time mention her crowd, that crowd that she came from and never grew out of, by recalling that her father, Telford Willis, died in 1949. Now, sixty plus years later we still speak of him in no small part because of his children, and because they embodied in their lives the things that he believed and loved. What a wonderful tribute it would be to his daughter if ten, twenty, or even sixty plus years from now in a place and setting something like this, people will still speak of Phyllis Willis as well because her children and grandchildren have done for the very same thing! And, hopefully, they will evidence in their lives the truths that flowed not just from her lips but also from her head and her heart as she sang and led others in singing.
Corey [Willis] closed his remarks by sharing his testimony. I will close mine by sharing hers. These word were sung by her hundreds of times, and they express, I believe, how she really felt.
I have a testimony, sacred and dear to me
Something that lies within my soul
One that I cannot see.
When life seems dark and its shadows
Hides all the brightness of day
I feels God’s arms around me
Leading me on each day.
Trials and tribulations oft have come my way
But I felt Him near me
And I knelt to pray-
Pray to God in heaven
Thank him fervently
For the blessings from his store
Giv’n unto me
I know that I shall meet Him
Some bright and glorious day
When all the world is free from sin
And shadows pass away.
He’ll take my hand and we’ll wander
Thru flower gardens fair.
Where all the land is peaceful
And far from toil and care
I know that He liveth
Reigneth up above
May He always guide me
Bless me with his love
I’ve a testimony- Sacred, dear to me
One that lies within my soul
Something I cannot see!