George Thomas Willis Jr., 91, lifelong, proud New Bernian and one of America’s Greatest Generation passed away at his home on Sunday, October 16, 2011 on the 65th anniversary of his marriage to his beloved wife, Celia Hall Willis who predeceased him on October 22, 2009.
Born on October 8, 1920, he was the son of the late Judge George T. Willis and Caroline Hudgins Willis McCarthy. He had one sister, Caroline Willis Wagner who died in 2008.
George was a devoted and loving son, husband, daddy, granddaddy and uncle. He is survived by his three girls, Elizabeth and husband John Burton of Suffolk, VA, Diane and husband Jim Ellington of New Bern and Alma and husband Phil Alexander of Morehead City; grandchildren Adam Burton, Erin Burton, Caroline Ellington, Brian Ellington, Lauren Alexander and Russell Alexander; nephew Albert Johnson and wife Anita, nephews Bill and Willis Wagner and niece Caroline Wagner Johnson.
New Bern was George’s home all his life. He grew up on East Front and Pollock Streets where he spent many a day with his boyhood friends on and around the river. He graduated from New Bern High School and attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
In 1940 he chose to join the military and he enlisted in Battery D 113th Field Artillery 30th Division in New Bern. He transferred to Battery A 690th Field Artillery in Fort Sill, OK in 1943 where he was an instructor at Army Field Artillery School.
While serving in Europe he came ashore at Utah Beach during the Normandy Campaign. His unit was attached to the 9th Infantry Division of VII Corps, 1st Army, which was instrumental in the Allied breakout at St. Lo during Operation Cobra, as well as the ensuing battle of the Falaise Pocket in Northern France, during July-August, 1944. From there, his unit fought across Northern Europe, taking part in such battles as the Battle of Bulge in Belgium, as well as others at Aachen and Cologne, in Germany, before finally accomplishing the mission of joining with the Allied Russian troops at Leipzig in May, 1945. Altogether, during World War II he fought in the campaigns of Normandy, Northern France, the Battle of the Ardennes, the Rhineland and Central Europe, earning bronze battle stars in each.
After V-E Day he returned to America and Fort Bragg, North Carolina where he was honorably discharged with the rank of Sergeant. He often spoke of his return home to New Bern as one of the happiest days of his life. Once back in New Bern he was never interested in venturing far from home.
George had a keen understanding of how things worked and how to fix them. Upon his return to civilian life he worked in the building and industrial parts and equipment business with C.J. McCarthy and later Carolina Rubber and Supply Company. When the New Bern Weyerhaeuser pulp facility was being built he worked with Daniel Construction Company and became the mill’s chief purchasing agent until his retirement.
He and Celia particularly relished socializing with Supper Club and Bridge Club friends, many who had known one another since childhood. They cherished the solitude of living on the Neuse River and down at Smyrna. Some of his favorite activities were those that took him outdoors and on the water with family and friends; fishing, clamming, oystering and boating. He enjoyed his hunting trips to Camp Brinson and especially Ladies’ Day there when Celia would demonstrate her jeep driving skills! Throughout his life he loved watching and being around animals, especially his dogs and horses. He was an accomplished horseman and an avid bird watcher. George was versatile in his abilities and knowledge, frequently amazing his sons-in-law with his skills.
A child of the Great Depression, he was frugal, humble, conscientious and always appreciative. He never took anything for granted and was never one to complain. He was sweet and salty and had a clever sense of humor and a knack for witty expressions even as the twinkle in his eyes dimmed and his memory faded. He was a good man who loved the Lord, his family and his friends.
His family is very appreciative of the dedicated and loving team of his daughter, Alma, and caregivers Josephine, Wanda and Betty Jo who made it possible for him to continue to live at home these past two years. A very grateful and special thank you to the Community Hospice staff especially Sabrina, Karen, Jessie, Jennifer and volunteers Lucy and Deborah for their commitment and care over these last several months.
A graveside service to honor and celebrate George’s life will be held at New Bern Memorial Cemetery on Chelsea Road at 4:00 P.M. on Friday, October 21. The family will receive friends after the service and at the Willis home in Trent Woods.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Alzheimer’s North Carolina, Inc., 1305 Navaho Drive, Suite 101, Raleigh, NC 27609 or a charity of one’s choice.
Online condolences may be made to the Willis family at www.cottenfuneralhome