An Interview with Onan J. and Wilhelmina Elizabeth Willis

By Donald Willis

Onan J. Willis (June 20, 1908) and Wilhelmina Elizabeth Thompson (February 25, 1916) were united in marriage February 28, 1931. All of their life has been spent in Texas, most of it in Trinity County, about 100 miles north of Houston. To this blessed union, seven children were born: Cecil (1932), Donald (1934), Lewis (1938), Ouida (1941), Sue (1945), Michael (1947) and Barbara (1949). All the children are Christians. The four boys dedicated their lives to preaching the gospel of Christ.

Being born in Early Americana had its own form of hardship. Due to the sickness of his father, Onan left school, after having received only a sixth grade education, and worked in the logging business. Most of the time, he was self-employed, working up to twenty men.

Wilhelmina (affectionately called “Bill”) completed the ninth grade. Mom and Dad began dating when Mom was only thirteen years of age. Marrying at the age of fifteen, Mom never entered the job market. Dad remarked that the only reason for their first date was to stop Mom from dating another boy. Mom replied that she married Dad to keep from picking cotton.

Dating: Neither Mom nor Dad would recommend that children be permitted to marry at fifteen today. However, Mom said “that was all there was back there.” Dad observed, “Everywhere we went, Mama or Papa one was along with us. Nowadays, they just turn them loose.” Mom added, “We did go to the picture show where someone would play the piano while the movie was showing, but that was a ‘no-no’ . . . Jodie (step-father) did not approve of attending movies . . . so we were treading on thin ice when we did that. When we went to parties like we had in the country, as they started square dancing, we immediately picked up and went home. The only places we went were to church . . . and to our neighbor’s house for parties. That was our entertainment. Sometimes we had school activities, like community plays. We had a car and we would go to another community for church and the family would all go.”

How did your parents feel about a 15-year-old daughter getting married?

Mom: My sister married at 16. Mama said she would never let another one marry at 16. Mama was not too excited about my getting married, but she said if Daddy hadn’t been grown (Dad was almost 23), she wouldn’t have let me. A 15-year-old can get on a bus now and go to school. If I had had that opportunity, I probably would have felt differently about it, too. By the time I was 22, I already had three children.

Explain some of the daily family activities in a household with seven children.

Mom: After breakfast, the boys would milk the cows, churn the butter, feed the pigs and chickens, gather the eggs, cut the wood; the other kids would care for the other children, make the beds, wash dishes, and basically clean the house before leaving for school. I would wash on Monday. Mama taught us to do Sunday clothes on Monday, because you never know but that you would need them before the week was up, and we did not have but one good set of clothes (except the babies). All the clothes had to be pressed with a hand-iron you would heat on the cook stove. Besides, the Mother had to work in the fields, and prepare all the meals.

What effect on the children did the assignment of chores have?

Mom: They were all responsible, and are responsible. None of my girls are slobs in the house; they are all very orderly. I would tell my boys I would rather they knew how to cook, iron, clean house, etc. and not have to do it than to have to do it and not know how!

How do you account for all of your children being Christians?

Mom: We tried to teach them properly. You instill in them a desire to go to church. It’s a two-fold thing, the children have to “want” to. go as much as the parents want them to; of course, you realize you have to instill it in them as best as you can.

Dad: They enjoyed attending.

Did you have any problems with the children?

Mom: I don’t consider that I had any major problems raising the kids. Just mischievous things.

How did you handle a child when he refused to obey?

Mom: I handed him over to Daddy. That’s just a little higher authority than you, usually.

Was there much physical correction used?

Mom: When you and Cecil were little, I thought whipping was just a part of raising little ones switching you a little bit. I didn’t ever beat you, that I can remember. And I don’t remember any of you getting a hard whipping except Ouida, and Daddy gave her a good whipping one time.

Dad: That was all it took.

Mom: I once gave Sue a pretty good one, but other than that, just little switchings, not real whippings.

How did the children feel when you turned them over to Dad?


Mom: We were blessed in that we never had any major illness. Of course, there were measles and chickenpox, but most of them had those while they were little. Lewis had some bad sickness, and Don got his head bashed and had diphtheria, and, of course, Mike’s accident (a mower threw a piece of metal into his arm, DW), and I don’t remember anything else that was major.

Mom: They dreaded it, I think.

Dad: We were fortunate to raise seven children, and all of them still be living.


Mom obeyed the gospel at twelve years of age; Dad was fourteen. Prior to that, Mom’s father, Herbert Thompson, had preached in Groveton; and her stepfather, Jodie Harrott, preached in Groveton, Sylvester, Pennington and Trevat; Dad’s grandfather, Charles Willis, did some preaching and his father, Winslow, did some preaching and song leading. Dad said, “In Possum Walk (community out of Pennington), an old preacher used to come and stay at our house in the winter time for two or three weeks, and preach.”

Mom: Somebody asked me if I worked when the seven children were growing up, and I said, “No, I just stayed home and raised seven kids.”

On Raising Children to Attend Worship

Dad: When we were growing up, the parents made their children go to church. They wanted to go.

Mom: They took them to church services.

Dad: But the children knew they had to go. And I think that is where a lot of folks are laying down on their job, not making them go to church while growing up.

Mom: Our kids enjoyed attending. I can remember when one of the babies was sick, I would keep the next one and they would cry because they didn’t get to go.

Mom and Dad were the least faithful during the period of time we live in Caromona. Dad “felt the trucks had to be fixed, and it went on for years like that.” Mom said Dad was restored during Cecil’s first meeting in Groveton. They would take all seven children to church in that old 1940 two-door Ford. They started attending Groveton after Lewis was born.

How many preachers are in your immediate family?

Mom: Four, and (tongue in cheek, DW) all the women preach, too.

How does it affect you when you say all the boys preach?

Mom: It is certainly a sobering thing and something of which we are very proud. We can’t take all of the praise for it, of course. Mama did a lot to instill religion in you and Cecil especially. She sat down with them when I was too busy to do things, and she would have them sitting around her teaching them Bible verses and getting little sermons up, when you were just kids.

Dad: And different preachers had a lot to do with it. We entertained preachers a lot in our home.

Mom: Bill Thompson (preacher, DW) used to visit frequently at our house, eating Sunday dinner with us. He used to say, “If you stumped your toe going to our table, you just as well turn around and go back.” Nearly every Sunday we had company.

We never dreamed that our four boys would be preachers, and all our children would be Christians, but really have been very fortunate for this to occur. In Cecil’s family: Steve, Dave and Doug all preach, and Brenda teaches; in Don’s family: Marilyn teaches, Don, Jr. and Charles have both done some preaching and both are capable song leaders, Cathy, Dee, Donna and Christie all teach; in Lewis’ family, Scott and Ron both preach and lead singing; in Ouida’s family: Billy is an elder and does some preaching and/or teaching, Ouida and Jackie teach, Phillip assists with teaching, personal evangelism, and song leading, while Mike has given a few talks; in Sue’s family: Sue teaches, Forrest is a deacon, Cary leads singing; in Mike’s family, Sandy teaches and Corey has just begun leading singing. Mom’s two brothers, Alton (deceased) and Butler have both preached and Alton was outstanding as a song leader. Fauchie, H.A. (both deceased) and Jimmy Thompson have all served as elders; Otis Thompson preached; Jim Roy Nichols is a deacon. In 1970, at the Willis family reunion, 160 individuals attended, with only two of these not being family members and most of them Christians. Today, there would be in excess; of 250 Christians in our family lineage.

Do you think your working hot all your life had any kind of positive effect on your kids? I know one time you told me one of the best lessons you ever taught me was to work.

Dad: I think it ran in the family to “push.” Nearly all of the Willis’ and Pillows’ were that type folks. They worked real hard, they always said Mom would go to the fields and work just like a man; of course, everybody’s wife did that in farming days.

How do you feel about people without initiative?

Dad: If they were working for you and would not work, you would have to get someone else. If they did not do their job, I would tell them they had either to do their job or go, one of the two; because when one lays down on his job, it makes it harder on the other one.

What about their family and kids?

Dad: Well, that was his obligation to take care of his family. I had the job for him if he wanted to work, but he had to produce or I couldn’t use him. In the winter during bad weather, I have borrowed money to pay my men, for they had to eat. If one of the employees was injured, we would always make it light on them. He didn’t even have to go to work if he didn’t feel up to it; and we always saw that his family ate. I never worked a man that I know of in my life, even if I had to let him go for some reason, that I couldn’t go back and hire again. In working I never purposefully mistreated anyone that I know of.

Advice to Parents With Children

Mom: Others attempted to “make” their children go to church whether they wanted to go or not; we taught out kids to “want” to go.

Dad: I think that our trust in the kids had a lot of effect.

Mom: I don’t think I remember not trusting my kids. Some parents are always accusing their children of things they are not even doing. You always choose your friends, and you brought them to church with you or brought them to our house, instead of pushing you off somewhere else. We wanted you to bring all your friends to the house. We didn’t have much to entertain them with, but I remember we used to have New Year’s parties, and they would play ball outside the house. I always wanted to know where my kids were; consequently, I had all the kids in the neighborhood.

Dad: Lack of trust will make children sneak around and probably be rebellious.

Do kids sense parental inconsistencies, causing them to rebel against the positive you are teaching them?

Mom: I wouldn’t be surprised. My uncle’s (an elder, DW) children were strictly governed and, since his death, his children have told us of wrongs with the children, and th knew it; therefore, the children felt religion was just a bi farce, two-faced!

What Is the most important lesson you taught children?

Dad: To mind each of us. When told to do something we expected them to do it. And if they didn’t do it, we would generally get hold of them.

Mom: The kids knew we agreed on things we told them We did not argue before the kids about things like that. They were taught respect for the Lord and their parents grandparents, and people in general, and to respect any old person.

Dad: Whether they were white or black, I had to respect them. My Mother and Daddy made us do it.

What is the most important lesson the children taugh you?

Dad: Certainly, responsibility. A big part of the time I was not there, she was with them more than I was.

Mom: He was a workaholic. Perseverance, I guess. You had to keep at it. You had to stay a step ahead all the time with anything that would come up.

The family consists of 27 grandchildren, and 16 great-grandchildren.

How many of these are members of the church?

Mom: All of them that are old enough.

Grace of God

You have experienced depression, personal life threatening illness, traumatic financial shortcomings, etc. How do you view the goodness of God?

Dad: He blessed us with good health.

Mom: We never had to go hungry. We were always abl to get the doctor’s help when we needed it.

Dad: I have lived to see them all through school and grown, and he blessed me because my work was very dangerous work. My worst accident was playing football with you boys. We live better since we have retired than we ever did before.

Mom: And we haven’t retired, we keep doing what can do.

Postscript: It has been a joy to interview an compose this short article. I have known many Christian couples in my preaching life, but none that I admire more t an! d my parents. I could have written a very enjoyable about their life. What a joy they have been!

Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 12, pp. 380-382
June 15, 1989