“I’m alive, alert, awake, and enthusiastic!”
If anyone ever asked my grandpa how he was, this was his usual response.
Grandpa loved life. Passionately. He was one of the most happy, optimistic, spunky, energetic, and fun-loving people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. A very warm, gregarious person, he did not let any bad experiences in life make him bitter. He always rose above his circumstances to flourish and positively impact his family, church, and community with a lasting legacy.
Donald Lee Willis was born on December 22, 1931. As a young man, he served in the Navy during the Korean War. He would later tell us he was seasick every minute of his time onboard.
When he returned to the States he met a beautiful girl, Shirley Waltmire, and fell in love with her. During the time he was dating her, a friend witnessed to him one day. Grandpa ended up talking to this friend’s pastor, who led him to Christ.
Later that evening when he met up with his date, she noticed something was different about him. She asked him about it. Grandpa told her what had happened and asked her to come to church with him.
Two weeks later, Grandma was led to the Lord.
A wedding date was set and plans begun for the marriage. But Grandpa, always full of the unexpected, suddenly suggested to Grandma one day that they elope. In those days, there was a three-day waiting period before you could elope, but Grandpa had heard there was a place in New Mexico where you didn’t have to wait.
They hopped in the car at about 8 o’clock that evening and drove all night from Kansas to New Mexico. When they got back, they had less than a dollar between them on which to begin their married life…and a very shocked mother-in-law waiting on the front porch.
Another example of his mischievous and spontaneous personality would be found in one of my favorite stories Grandma told me. Shortly after they were married they were both lying in bed one night, playfully arguing over who would turn out the lights. Neither wanted to get out of bed. Grandpa suddenly picked up a shoe and hurled it at the light bulb, shattering it.
Lights out. Problem solved. And there was snickering in the dark.
Four years into marriage, children began to enter the scene: Stuart (my dad), Jana, Mark, Jennifer.
One day Grandpa came home from his work at a printing company and declared to Grandma, “I can do what they do and do it better.”
He was quite sure of this. There was only one problem: money. The bank wouldn’t loan them any because they were far too poor. Grandpa and Grandma made up a list of wealthy people in their town and applied to each one for a loan.
Every last one turned them down.
Undeterred, Grandpa finally found help in his step-father, who agreed to co-sign a loan if he would make him a partner.
The thing was done, and with two other partners the four went into business in 1964.
Grandpa was right. He knew how to do the work—and how to do it better. The business was soon thriving; his step-father bought out the other two partners. They began hiring more and more employees. The building grew into a large facility that printed business forms and shipped them all over the U.S., and at its height had 112 employees at one time.
Though Grandpa only had a 10th-grade education, he was an extremely smart guy. He designed and built a lot of his own equipment and machines. Grandma remembers how he would have engineering books spread all over the place as he came up with his own designs.
Everyone in town wanted to work for Don and Shirley. They were kind and generous employers who treated their employees well and paid the best wages around. They implemented a four-day work week and introduced profit-sharing to their employees. Positions with them were coveted.
And God blessed them with great success. They sold the booming business in 1986 and retired to spoil their grandchildren. There were ten of us, and we all hold some of the best memories of our grandparents that any grandchildren ever will.
Though a highly successful businessman, Grandpa always remained humble and gave all the glory to God. Grandpa was no respecter of persons; he treated everyone with equal respect and kindness. I remember walking into our local grocery store one day as a teenager and running into a stranger who said he knew my grandparents (everyone seemed to know them).
“Don and Shirley are great people,” he told me. “Even though they live in that nice house and they’re so well-off, they treat everyone as an equal, and don’t act like they’re any better than anybody else.”
Their name was widely known and respected. Just to tell someone I was the granddaughter of Don and Shirley Willis raised me in their estimation. Grandpa was known as a man of kindness, generosity, honesty, and integrity. He hated the very shadow of a lie. He was honest to a fault, and would say, “If I would lie for you, I would lie to you.”
Grandpa seemed to love everyone. And he wanted everyone to know Christ, whom he shared every time he had the opportunity.
Even with people the rest of society looked down on.
Every time Grandpa would see a certain man in his town who struggled with alcoholism, he would go toward him and warmly embrace him in a hug and share Jesus with him…again.
Two years ago, out of the blue, this man called Grandpa.
Christ had changed his life. He was now a believer walking with God. He heartily thanked my Grandpa for having been the influence that brought him to Christ.
Grandma and Grandpa set the example for practicing generosity and hospitality. Any traveling preacher or evangelist was warmly welcomed into their home and given more than a bed and meals; he was royally treated like family. My grandparents gave generously to Christian work and missions—and pretty much to anyone in need. There was no way you were leaving their house without having your known needs met, regardless of who you were.
One of Grandpa’s pastors remembers a time when a bunch of men came into a Bible study without Bibles. Grandpa came up to the pastor afterwards, pressed something into his hand, and told him, “You get those men some Bibles. It’s important.”
He’d left the pastor with a wad of money.
They were never loud and flashy about their giving, never trying to draw attention to themselves for it. They did it discreetly—but freely, joyfully, hilariously. It made them happy.
After retiring Grandpa took up wood-working as a hobby (he was self-taught). His work was very good and he began to make cabinets and pieces of furniture for family and friends. There are many, many homes—and even churches—that still have the gifts of his handiwork adorning them. In our home, two beds, a hope chest, two chest-of-drawers, a wardrobe, a buffet table, all our cabinet doors, and miscellaneous other things attest to Grandpa’s skill and generosity.
I have so many wonderful memories of this amazing man there’s no way I could tell them all. Big family get-togethers with lots of food and fun. Swimming together on hot summer days—Grandpa taught me to swim. Special birthday outings for dinner and shopping—just Grandma and Grandpa and I. The time Grandpa came and got me for the day so we could build a birdhouse together, one-on-one (he did this with each one of us grandkids). Rides in his convertible when we would yell “punch it!” and Grandpa would floor it, laughing with as much delight as the youngest of us (Grandpa loved his old classic cars, which won prizes at shows). The wonderful smell of Grandpa’s woodshop, from which all manner of wonderful gifts came. Staying up till midnight laughing and playing card games together.
Christmas every year was a big deal and a grand time. In the midst of all the food and fun, Grandpa always read us the story of Christ’s birth from Scripture, followed by a heartfelt plea to trust in the Lord and follow Him with all our lives. He exhorted his grandchildren to “seek ye first the kingdom of God” so many times, one grandson said he would dream about this Scripture verse.
Everything he did, he did with all his heart and soul. He lived his 87 years with a contagious passion and love for life and God.
Today, we said our goodbyes to him. He was a wonderful husband, father, grandfather, employer, neighbor, friend. But his ultimate identity was in Christ, whom he longed to see. Towards the very end, because of Alzheimer’s, he would sometimes forget who we were.
But there was One Person he never forgot. Even in his confusion and forgetfulness he always remembered Christ and called on the name of the Lord throughout each day, praying to Him, asking for His help and wisdom.
Grandpa loved life. But he loved The Life even more. For him, it was not death to die. He’s more alive, alert, awake, and enthusiastic today than he’s ever been before.