Miner, master gardener, husband, great-grandfather. Born Aug. 3, 1925, in East Wallace, N.S., died April 15, 2013, in Pugwash, N.S., of cancer, aged 87.
Willis spent the first days of his life sleeping in a shoebox on the oven door of his grandmother’s wood stove. His mother kept her two-and-a-half-pound baby alive by feeding him milk from an eye dropper.
As a boy, he kept a fond attachment to the home of his birth, often walking to the farmhouse 10 kilometres from his home in Malagash Mine to help his grandmother with the farm chores.
A miner for 42 years, first at the Malagash salt mine, then at the Pugwash mine, Willis was never late for work – and never early. He always arrived two minutes prior to punching-in time. The other miners never watched the clock, they just watched for Willis.
He learned about the world through his voracious reading, stamp collecting and pursuit of family genealogy. While visiting his nieces, he would search the Oromocto, N.B., and Fredericton phone books for McGraths. He then called each one listed to see if they were relatives, and seemed perplexed when some people were not receptive to his inquiries. “Well, that guy wasn’t very nice,” he’d say, hanging up the phone.
Willis was a master gardener. He grew spectacular vegetables and flowers, and transformed his property into a park-like landscape. This work kept him spry well into his 80s. He was fastidious about his gardens. When his son Ralph was helping him plant potatoes last summer, Ralph glanced back after planting a row to see his dad following him, using his cane as a hoe to replant most of the row.
He loved to dance. At a family wedding reception where he did the twist exceptionally well, even with his hip replacement, a friend exclaimed: “That man can get down with the best of them!”
That night, my sister introduced him to Southern Comfort. The next morning, he complained he was “Sufferin’ Comfort.” Thereafter, his favourite drink was always alluded to as “Sufferin’ Comfort.”
At his cottage overlooking the Northumberland Strait, many small tents would be pitched on the lawn for a couple of weekends every summer for a family reunion. His 87th birthday last August was one such occasion. Willis sat on the deck gazing at his four children, 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren as they ate cake, laughed and played together. A contented smile on his remarkably unlined face, he watched the setting sun paint rosy streaks in the sea and sky.
Willis spent his last days at home. Knowing he was slipping away, he said goodbye to each of his children and told his beloved wife of 55 years how hard it was to leave them. “But for a two-and-half-pounder that wasn’t expected to live,” he said, “I guess I didn’t do too bad, did I?”
Melanie, Marilyn and Marion Murray are Willis’s nieces.