Residents of Deptford’s Jericho section are saying goodbye this weekend to a man who gave more than 60 years to his community and his faith.
Rev. William Donald Willis, assistant pastor at the First Baptist Church of Jericho, died Nov. 18. The preacher, who was a fixture in Jericho and a dedicated participant in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, was 100 years old.
“I used to hear him preach from the time I was 10 years old,” said Rev. Clabon Bogan, the pastor of First Baptist for the past 20 years. “I’ve known him for almost 50 years. That grew to the point where there was a vacancy here at the church, and Rev. Willis was the one who approached me about the position I hold now.”
A native of Carolina County, Virginia, Willis moved to Camden with his family at the age of 13. It was at New Mickle Baptist Church in the city that Willis met his wife, Mildred Ann Graham, who died in 2001. The couple had three children and raised one of their nephews as well.
After leaving school with a sixth-grade education to help support his family with a railroad job, Willis eventually returned to school, graduating from Woodrow Wilson High School before attending seminary and earning a doctorate degree.
Willis worked as the main pastor of First Baptist from 1953 to 1983. In those 30 years, he was a major player in a variety of initiatives, including establishing a church summer camp and holding a number of positions in the statewide Bethany Baptist Association.
In the 1960s and ’70s, Willis became a major local leader of the Civil Rights movement. He brought a number of guest ministers to Jericho to discuss a range of social topics, and attended Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington in the summer of 1964. Willis also hit the picket lines with other members of the clergy when Irene Hill-Smith, the leader of the local NAACP chapter at the time, was held in jail.
“He was bigger than life to us,” said his daughter, Karen Burgwin. “He loved people, and he loved helping people. And he was very mission-minded. He reached out to people all over the world and was very adamant about the church’s involvement with foreign missions and locally as well.”
As far as his political activism went, Burgwin said, “he determined he was free like everybody else.
“He took us everywhere,” said Burgwin. “He stepped out along with other community leaders like Irene Hill-Smith to make sure that people’s rights weren’t being stomped on.”
Willis did not take his children to see King speak in Washington, but his daughter Cheryl Rolen shared one memory of seeing her father in action.
“I can remember an episode here in Woodbury where he took my sister and I and a couple of our friends to the diner, and the lady didn’t want to wait on us. He spoke with the manager, and then he let us order seafood platters,” Rolen said, laughing.
“We made her awfully angry. I know he did things like that. He didn’t usually pull us into them, but he did do things like that.”
On a personal level, Willis’ daughters said friends and family could always count on him to listen to their problems, provided they were ready to hear what he thought. Soft-spoken but principled, Willis always stood by his convictions.
“He was a very caring person. People knew when they came to him that he was going to listen, but that he was also going to tell them the truth, whatever that truth was.”
And although he may have been busy throughout his career, his daughters said, he never forgot about his family. Willis was particularly fond of food and travel, and was a charismatic friend who loved to hear personal anecdotes and share jokes.
After stepping down from the pulpit in the First Baptist Church, Willis spent the later years of his career working as an interim minister at several different congregations. He came back to Jericho as an interim before signing on as assistant pastor when Bogan joined the church in 1994. Willis had to scale back his activity in his late 90s when he was diagnosed with dementia, but he kept the title of assistant pastor until he died.
“He had the ability to show his love even though he didn’t voice it. It was about action and not rhetoric,” said his grandson, Chris Rolen. “As I embark on my own personal development, I realize he embodied changing yourself so you can change the world. When I think about him dropping out of school and getting a doctorate and becoming a scholar, the places that he’s been and educating himself the way he did, that’s what I want people to remember about him. He changed himself so that he could change the world.”
Willis is pre-deceased by three sisters and eight brothers. He is survived by his younger sister, Pearl, who lives in Camden; his daughters Karen and Cheryl of Woodbury; son Charles of Philadelphia; numerous grandchildren as well as great and great-great-grandchildren; and his nieces and nephews.
A viewing will be held for Willis Friday evening from 6 to 9 p.m. at the First Baptist Church of Jericho, 981 Mail Ave., Deptford. The family will greet visitors at 9 a.m. on Saturday, and a funeral service will be held afterward at 11 a.m.