By Steve Willis
With the passing of my father, Cecil Willis, it has been my honor to receive many condolences and messages from those who had known and worked with him. I wish to thank all those who have sent such thoughts to me and the rest of the family. We have appreciated the many kind words, and prayers offered for us. Sometimes the letters have included anecdotes about my Dad. These have brought back fond memories.
“Honor your father and mother (which is the first commandment with a promise), that it may be well with you, and that you may live long on the earth” (Eph. 6:1-2).
I have studied and taught that “honor” means more than just offering good words to or about one’s parents. It includes a “price” that might be paid to help them as both children and parents get older. Seeing others struggle with how they might help their parents with failing health often causes me to think of how I might be able to do the same yet hoping their health was such that we children might not need ever to do so. However, now that Dad’s physical battles are over, I wish to “honor” him in words. In no way should my words be seen as “dishonor” to my mother, for she is to be praised as well. Others have written of Dad’s unfaithfulness to her. I wish to consider here the good things which, as a father, he taught and provided for me and some of the other children in our family. Nehemiah’s prayer, “Remember me, 0 my God, for good” (13:31) could have been Dad’s.
A Good Name “A good name is to be more desired than great riches, Favor is better than silver and gold” (Prov. 22:1). Dad provided us with a good name, Willis, as his Dad did before him. Dad did a lot of genealogical research on the Willis family and name. And there were both noble and ignoble deeds done by Willises. The same could be said of Dad, and of course of me and other Willises. But through his efforts as a preacher of the gospel, we can be proud to wear the name Willis.
Sometimes I’ve felt self-conscious about it, especially around my peers. But as Dad and other Willis-preachers have labored in many places, many doors have been left open for me by sharing Dad’s last name. I’m grateful to appreciative brethren who have shown kindnesses to me for feelings they have about my Dad. Surely, “A good name is better than a good ointment” (Eccl. 7:1). I would hope I can pass the name along without much to besmirch it.
Caring For One’s Own “But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his house-hold, he has denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8). Dad taught us the lesson to care for our own. Even when he was gone so much, preaching for brethren, we knew he was concerned about us at home. Our parents raised us in the “nurture and admonition of the Lord.” We had what was necessary for our spiritual and physical development. We were taken to meetings and we were taken to fish. Our education at Florida College was a given; he’d gone there and we expected to go there. One grand-child has already been there. His will stipulated that his last child, from his second marriage, can go there if she wishes.
But not only did we see and experience his care for his children, we saw his concern for his parents as they had failing health sometimes sending money to them. Later living with them until he was no longer able to help them himself. This was an example of how it should be done.
Responsibility “Know well the condition of your flocks, And pay attention to your herds” (Prov. 27:23). Part of learning the responsibility to care for one’s own was by learning to care for animals. Dad surprised us with a pony in a U-Haul one time. Over the years, we had all sorts of animals: cats, dogs, hamsters, ponies, pigs, sheep, lizards. He even brought home a baby raccoon which my brother raised. Many brethren remember our dog Fred, and the pants Dad replaced on occasions. From the 32 hamsters to the 36 cats, we were taught to care for our own. This meant feeding them, and sometimes working to get feed for them. This meant burying some when they passed away. I once thought that having many pets, and having a few die occa-sionally, was one way that I learned about death if I may say, a reality of life. It did not prepare me for the death of a parent, but it was a way of learning to be responsible.
Work “For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone will not work, neither let him eat” (2 Thess. 3:10). As a youngster, Dad worked. As we were young, we were taught to work. We had house-hold chores to do, outside chores to do. Dave and I were encouraged to knock on doors offering to shovel snow around the block. If I would get a job, say baling hay or working at a furniture store, then Dad would say, “See if you can get Dave ajob too.” One summer he arranged for us to live with a family, the Davises, and work on their farm, hoeing weeds out of bean fields. We picked up corn for the ponies. We had jobs with the printer 40 miles away who printed Cogdill Foundation materials, and our parents provided the cars and gas for us to get there. Later, when his health began to fail, my wife and I worked with him for the Cogdill Foundation.
Giving “Let each one do just as he has purposed in his heart; not grudgingly or under compulsion; for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7). Each time we’d get a little job and get paid, we were reminded by both our parents to give a portion to the Lord’s work. Dad always gave generously to the weekly collection. But that was not all, he gave gifts to various ones to help their needs, whether physical needs or spiritual needs. Many times upon his return from some gospel meetings he brought home gifts for family and friends. It was a thrill to help him unpack! When we’d visit with him, though it was seldom, we’d usually come home with something that he’d given us or the children, usually something to wear, a hat or a belt, or a “can of pocket change.” He had three cans saved on a dresser in his house. Who would have received one next?
I certainly do not know all who received benefit from him. I know he was recognized as a Florida College “Friend to Youth” one year for helping to raise funds for them. One of the last letters I found that he wrote was to brother Caldwell with a contribution for the college. He noted that because of his recent medical expenses, it was smaller than usual.
He had a special interest in the Philippine preachers and needy saints there. For some time he encouraged me and others in my family to share with some there. I remember a brother remarking that he thought Dad would be giving away money to them, even when he couldn’t afford to do so. He continued to help preachers there financially until the end. These were lessons for me, and I share this other-wise private information so it may be a lesson to others.
Preaching “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (2 Tim. 4:2). Of course, Dad’s work of preaching and teaching both in the pulpit, privately and in his writings is why most will remember him. He was a giver of the Word; “from faith to faith” comes to mind.
He not only helped when his three brothers began preaching, but many others as well. Sometimes this was with an encouraging word, the sharing of sermon materials, giving books, or helping one to find support. Other times it was sharing his insight into some issue that needed further study. All of these applied to me as I began and continued to preach.
Though I’m told as a little child I would preach to cats, and even baptize a few, I would guess serious encouragement to preach started when he got my brother and me to attend the men’s classes at the Brown Street church in Akron, Ohio. But, it would continue as he helped me develop some lessons, and helped me find occasions to preach. We had his example of studying day and night, preparing for an article or sermon. He gave books to me and my brother, and shared outlines most of the ones I have were on thermal copies and have long since faded away.
By the time I was of an age that I can remember sermons, I regret that he was often preaching away from where I was. I do remember quite a few lessons from my childhood: “Taking the Devoted Thing,” “Giving” (the sermon with all the points beginning with a P), “Our Duty to the Truth,” and “Seven Wonders of the Wonderful Word” a sermon I found listed on an announcement for his first gospel meeting in 1950. On one occasion while away, Dad had many things stolen out of his car parked outside a church building. A number of sermon outlines were stolen. Dad had me retype a notebook of sermons from carbon copies he had retained. He often told me, “Spell it the way I had it, not the way you think it should be!” I found one of those notebooks with his spelling corrections in it.
I can remember attending (and as a preteen, that’s about all I remember) the last night of the Willis-Inman debate in Parkersburg, West Virginia. Later when he was trying to get it published, he had me hand retouch the photos of the charts, as red ink on the cloth charts didn’t reproduce so well. Though I was young, it exposed me to the lessons on authority and the errors of institutionalism and the sponsoring church arrangements.
While I was attending Florida College, he made arrangements for me to attend the Willis-Jenkins debate in Houston, Texas. Later, when my wife and I worked for the Foundation, we worked to transcribe, edit, make charts, and get the book into print. Again, it exposed me to his way of thinking and dealing with issues.
During this same period of time, I would ghost-edit Truth Magazine for Dad. As he was under medical instructions to take a break, I worked with him to publish the paper andother booklets and even a book or two. He had “scripts” of radio programs he presented in the early 1950s in Indianapolis. It would be my job to slightly edit the scripts into articles that would appear in the magazine. Once again, exposing me to great material for my own growth spiritually. Many in the family helped in some way on this or that publication, especially by reading galleys or, in the case of my brother David, providing artwork for Bible class materials.
After both my brother and me were in Florida preaching, Dad had us come to Huntsville, Texas to assist him (with others) in the Willis-Bowers debate (unpublished) on the Sabbath. We made charts, helped with ideas, and flipped charts. We each went home with a big notebook of material on the Sabbath debate, and he loaded us up with books. Dave and I still laugh at how full his Volkswagen Rabbit was when it was full of books and we decided we’d also try to load in some Louisiana crawfish on the way home. I remember he asked me to preach the following Sunday morning there.
As I was away from home by this time with my own work, there would be few more times that I would hear Dad preach. The few times we were together, he would try to hear me preach. One time, in Groveton, Texas, I remember Dad’s teaching the morning Bible class, and Mike Willis was to speak at the morning assembly, and I would speak that evening. From the pulpit, Mike, commenting on the plans that day, said that it reminded him of the Three Stooges, and referring to his own head added, “I guess you can call me `Curly.”‘ My thought was that most likely the way Dad treated a younger brother and had to spank us kids occasionally, we could call him “Moe.” During my sermon, I saw Dad turn to his mother and ask for a pencil and paper. I thought while preaching, “Wow! Dad’s going to take notes on MY sermon.” Then he handed a note to his mother and got up and walked out. He was having excruciating pain from a kidney stone. I believe this was the last class that I heard Dad teach, and I think it was from Hebrews, a book he especially enjoyed teaching.
When I was trying to raise support to come to Canada to preach, Dad helped in my efforts to raise support by sharing his knowledge of the brotherhood and churches that might be willing to help. We were able to raise funds for moving expenses and continuing monthly support in relatively short time. I believe the last time I heard my Dad preach was on a visit up here, when he preached on the Resurrection and Appearances of Jesus. It was from some hand written notes.
Music “. . . speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord” (Eph. 5:19), and “Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praises” (Jas. 5:13). There is a side to Dad that many may not know unless they had spent a little time with him. He was singing almost all the time. Some-times it was within himself, and as he rose from his desk or walked down a hall, a part of a song would erupt vocally: “Jesus, Rose of Sharon, rule within my heart….” He enjoyed singing and listening to singing. He had just purchased many tapes of gospel singing before his death.
We children were also brought up with a musical atmosphere at home. My mother played piano. All four children were given piano lessons. Among us we played a variety of instruments at home: flute, clarinet, guitar, bass, among a few with attempts to take on trumpet, trombone and violin among others. Both sides of my parents families were singers. We sang at my grandmother Crim’s funeral. We sang at my Dad’s funeral. We were taken to area singings. We sons were in training classes to sing.
My guitar music was probably pretty irritating to my Dad. There are jokes and stories that get back to me occasion-ally about it. However, let me reveal that when my guitar, bass and amplifier were stolen from our house, it was Dad who took me to a music store and watched me pick out another guitar and a bigger amplifier to bring home.
It will be hard to sing many songs in our song books without thinking of Dad and mentally hearing him burst out a verse or so.
Association With Brethren “Do not forsake your own friend or your father’s friend …. (Prov. 27:10). Dad had lots of friends. A friend will talk to you straightly about your faults and your better qualities. He had friends do both. Over the years we had many brethren in our home. I don’t know of many non-brethren who were his close friends. We learned to appreciate and associate with brethren. I couldn’t name them all, but we came to know some special people via Dad: Roy E. Cogdill, Luther Blackmon, James Adams, Connie Adams, James Needham, O.C. Birdwell, Earl Robertson, James Cope, Harry Pickup, Ferrell Jenkins, George Eldridge (and brothers), Larry Ray Hafley, and Ron Halbrook. Of course there were many more, but these are a few of my “father’s friends” who became mine (No offense intended to those not mentioned!).
One special family of friends are the Robert E. Davises in Marion, Indiana. Dad had befriended them while on some gospel meetings away from Ohio. They were farmers, and he liked farm work. As I mentioned before, Dad arranged for Dave and me to stay with them. Later, when we needed to move, Dad wanted to go to Marion, especially because of their friendship. He liked to relax and drive their farm equipment in the fields usually at their expense, like when he got hung up on a gate with the cultivator or plow. Later, one of their daughter’s high school friends came to live in their home and was eventually adopted by them. This was Shirley, who became my wife. I tell people I knew her parents before she did, but in reality, Dad knew her parents before I did. Once again, I benefited from Dad’s friend-ships and association with brethren.
Humor “A joyful heart makes a cheerful face, But when the heart is sad, the spirit is broken” (Prov. 15:13). There were certainly time where Dad’s or some one in the family’s spirit was near breaking, but you couldn’t be around Dad long before you’d hear something that made your have a “cheerful face”: Did you hear about the duck that flew upside down? He quacked up! A secret revealed: many of my and my brother’s jokes are recycled Cecil Willis jokes. And he enjoyed listening and grinning at another’s joke too. Even now I can “see” that twinkle in his eye as he didn’t laugh at one of my jokes, only waiting to tell it to someone else.
A year ago, at our Willis grandparent’s 65th (now 66th) wedding anniversary, the family humor was attributed to my grandmother. Dad had a special dose of it. Even as we were in grief over losing him, we were able to find “his” kind of humor in certain events. May we always be able to have a joyful heart.
Pepper “And they shall eat the flesh that same night, roasted with fire, and they shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs” (Exod. 12:8). No, we didn’t eat the Pass-over, but Dad sure used the bitter herbs: PEPPER! Growing up, if you sat next to Dad at the table, you were likely to find yourself sneezing. He covered everything with pep-per. One time, he and I were at a restaurant in Texas. He duly covered everything with pepper, when the waiter came up and exclaimed,”Oh! Was there an accident? Did the lid come off the pepper?”
Strangely, I never cared for pepper, in fact I didn’t really like it on my food. However, when I stayed the two weeks with him after his surgery in February, I found myself adding just a little bit. After arriving home, I found I continued to add it, but not to the amounts he used (yet?). What is that saying? “The son becomes the father …”?
Unity “… being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). Up until after his death, I couldn’t have told you what Dad’s favorite Bible passage was. I might have guessed one of the Psalms, or “preach the word …” However it was called to my attention that Ephesians 4:3 was one he considered a favorite. I can vaguely remember hearing a sermon on this verse; I expect we all have preached the same seven-point lesson.
One might think that articles he wrote and debates he held would be more divisive, but the only way we can unite with the Lord and one another is in the truth. If we don’t maintain the truth, we can’t have the unity for which Christ prayed: “Sanctify them in the truth; Thy word is truth” (I can remember Dad’s voice quoting this in sermons), and “I do not ask in behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us; that the world may believe that Thou didst send Me” (John 17:17, 20-21). One of Dad’s points in “Our Duty to the Truth” was to “Protect the Truth.” That sort of sounds like a “Guardian of Truth” to me. Some may say the truth needs no protector or guardian. To me there’s something about “being diligent” that matches well with fighting the good fight of faith. The good fight of faith was so we could maintain the unity of the Spirit. For this reason, the “Man in the Arena” citation (see the article by Mike Willis) was meaningful to me. It so reminded me of my Dad.
Final Word I was able to spend two weeks with Dad after his triple-bypass surgery. It was supposed to be for his benefit. I feel it was for my benefit as well. We had a good visit. One of the last things he “advised” me was that I needed to do more writing. Little would either of us know, that the next thing I would have published would be this article. We miss our Dad!
While still a student, he started his family and preached for the Lutz church near Tampa, Florida. Leaving Florida, he moved his family to Indianapolis, Indiana and began “full-time” work in the Lord’s kingdom.
He quickly established himself as more than “ordinary” as a preacher. He would gain great influence in the church. In fact, it is my belief (and I think numbers of you would share that belief) that Cecil became one of four or five of the most influential men in this brotherhood for a time. Others would have been Roy E. Cogdill, Yater Tant, and James R. Cope . The surprising thing about Cecil’s influence was his age. He moved to the Brown Street congregation in Akron, Ohio in 1958, staying until 1966. Those were probably his best years, the years of his greatest influence, and he was only 34 years old at that time! He touched the lives of most of the preachers of those controversial years. (Others will address his work more specifically.)
At the zenith of his influence, the worse thing that can happen to a preacher occurred. His marriage failed! Suddenly, the same brethren who had heralded his brilliance as a preacher, wanted nothing to do with him. In a letter to some Akron brethren, written July 8, 1987, he wrote, “Every single gospel meeting I had scheduled was canceled, with no questions asked.” He was holding 20-25 meetings in those years and he had three years worth of meetings canceled! None of his training or experience had prepared him for this broad rejection. Not only did this break his spirit, it also broke his health. Churches neither sought him to preach, nor was he physically able to do so.
He now found it necessary to seek secular employment. He was hired as a prison guard by the Texas Department of Corrections, working at the maximum security prison at Huntsville, Texas. This is the prison used by the State of Texas for executions. I received a letter (referred to later) in which he said they had 171 prisoners on death row at that time. He once told me that often he and two or three other unarmed guards would work in a cell-block of 250 or so prisoners. Most of the time, however, he spent in a guard tower, armed with two 357 pistols, a pump shotgun loaded with buckshot, and an A-15 automatic military-type rifle.
The only hand-written letter I ever received from him, I saved. The letter was dated December 11, 1982, and was written on the occasion of the death of the mother of my late wife, Frankie. He said, “Through no one’s fault but my own, I have not kept up with family affairs of late. Hence, I did not know about the death of Frankie’s mother until your letter arrived . . . `Sympathy’ has been defined as ‘entering into the feelings of another’ and I have felt pain for Frankie and the rest of you. (He then added) It is a cold, rainy Saturday morning here, and I sit high in my guard tower watching nothing but walls and fences. We have over 1000 inmates here, and only I and three other guards have weapons, but no guard has fired a shot here in 18 years. So it is really an easy and safe job. I am grateful to have it.” I feared for his life through those years.
I soon became more fearful for his soul when he contracted a second marriage in violation of the Word of God which before, he had preached so courageously. In his 1987 letter to some local brethren, he wrote, “I fell into sin when I remarried.” How could a man of such influence have fallen any lower? We will never know the number of prayers God heard for Cecil Willis during those years.
Thankfully, in time his love for God, his respect for the truth, his deep faith, and abiding conviction led him out of his sin. The second marriage was ended and public confession was made before the church at both Huntsville (which had withdrawn from him) and Groveton, Texas, the old home congregation. Through the tender guidance of brother Connie W. Adams and others, he issued a public statement of confession in Searching the Scriptures, and Guardian of Truth. Cecil had lived too long and knew too much. He knew a betrayed brotherhood would not quickly receive him back as a preacher, if ever. Men in similar situations today seem to want to repent one day and go back to work as if nothing happened the next day. Such is not realistic.
He soon moved to Fairbanks, Alaska to preach. He wrote, “I am just now getting myself back together spiritually … so must go on with my life. The few brethren here seem glad to have me, and I deliberately came to this re-mote place to give my soul time to heal, and to dig into my studies for a couple of years. Then I will resume as much gospel work as the brethren will permit me to do. The words of David fit me exactly now: `I would rather be a door-keeper in the House of the Lord than to dwell in the tents of wickedness.’ So if there is just a little doorkeeper work for me to do, that will be fine with me” (1987 letter).
The remaining years of his life were spent in recovery of his influence. He preached for our home congregation of 15-20 people for several years. I once asked him how he could keep going during that time. He said his self-inflicted wounds would not soon heal and all he knew to do was work for the Lord whenever and wherever he was given the opportunity. He would often work most of two entire days preparing for his Wednesday evening Bible class, which he taught to as few as six people, and he was the youngest person in the group! At that time he was living with and caring for our aged parents.
When Mom and Dad needed more care than he was able to give, he knew a change had to occur in his life. About that time brother H.W. Eddy of the Salem, Ohio church passed away. They had been close friends for years. Brother Eddy shared Cecil’s interest in the work in the Philippines, and they sent wages and books to several native preachers in the islands through the years, mostly funded by brother and sister Eddy. (Cecil and the family of his daughter, Brenda, were sending wages to a Filipino preacher at the time of his death.) Cecil was asked to preach brother Eddy’s funeral and the Salem church was looking for a preacher at that time. On that trip to Ohio, the Salem church invited him to move there and work with them. He had always wanted to work at Salem and he now had the opportunity. He rejoiced in this, and regarded it as another step in his spiritual recovery.
After arriving in Salem, he immediately began attending gospel meetings conducted by congregations in Northeast Ohio. Soon, brethren in this area began reaching out to him in the simplest of ways asking him to lead prayers in meetings and each invitation added healing to his wounds. I doubt that any of these brethren realized at the time how much they helped him through that recognition.
He was planning to attend the worship at Brown Street here in Akron, Ohio on Sunday evening, May 18 (the day after his death), following which he would make a trip to Texas on Monday. I asked the elders if they would like to invite Cecil to speak at the evening worship that Sunday. Since his family troubles, he had not received an invitation to speak here. They agreed they would, and issued the invitation. To understand how much this meant to him, here is what he wrote about this church and his love for it in his 1987 letter: “I shall always be grateful that the Brown Street brethren invited me to work with them. Brown Street was the best church I ever worked with, and probably did my best work there. In many ways, I wish I had never left. It seemed the brethren would have been glad for me to stay. I often think about Ralph, Langford, Crabtree, and Wilson … the elders who invited me, and were so much encouragement to me. I loved them one and all!”
The preceding Wednesday, May 14, I called him from Morgantown, West Virginia where I was holding a meeting, asking how he was doing and if he was ready to preach on Sunday evening. I told him I was glad he got the invitation and his reply was, “So am I. I feel as though I just crossed another big hurdle.” He didn’t get to preach that sermon, but he died knowing that the church at Brown Street had reached out to him with their acceptance. For the family, I thank the elders and members here, our brethren in area congregations, and especially the Salem church for what they did in receiving Cecil again. The brethren at Salem loved, respected, and cared for him for the last year of his life, and we appreciate all that they did for him. They could not possibly know how much it meant to him.
So Cecil’s journey from East Texas made full-circle when his family tenderly laid him to rest in the family plot in the community cemetery at old Sumpter, Texas, about a mile or so from the family homestead. His journey had been at times filled with joy, excitement, a lot of travel, and much fruitfulness. At other times, it was filled with more pain, sorrow, regret, and loneliness than any man should ever have to bear. I fervently pray that he now can rest from his labors and heartaches in the presence of the Lord whom he loved and sought to serve, in spite of the mistakes he made along the way.
Guardian of Truth XLI: 15 p. 14-18
August 7, 1997