Born in Columbia, SC, in 1919, Willa grew up the youngest of six children during the Great Depression. “We never went hungry,” she said, “but many times supper was a big bowl of cabbage and a loaf of bread, with black-strap molasses for dessert.” Times were hard. As a child Willa bathed in the mornings from a bucket heated on the back of the stove (“it was warm!”) and with her older sister remembers standing in bread lines. The picture show cost a dime – but there were few dimes. “After supper we would gather around the fireplace (the only heat in the house) and read and tell stories. You would freeze on one side and burn on the other, but we became a family around that fireplace.” Her mother was a strong Christian woman, and Willa grew up attending the First Christian Church.
This strength stood the family in good stead, because they lost their house in Columbia when they could no longer pay the mortgage. They moved to the small town of Elloree, SC, where Willa proudly was graduated from high school (there were 11 in her class) in 1937. That fall she entered Lander College in Greenwood, SC, where she wanted to major in Art. But Art cost $30 extra, for supplies, and there was no way to find that $30. So she switched to History, and took her B.A. from Lander in 1941.
And then there was the War. Willa was teaching elementary school in Charleston when the war broke out. She finished out the year, and then joined up – into the Navy, like her big brother William. In 1943 she was sent to Columbia University in NYC to complete her training in Occupational Therapy. One memorable evening she and a couple of friends decided to visit the famous “Stage Door Canteen.” While there she was served a bowl of soup by Cary Grant! “I don’t remember what kind of soup it was – all we girls could do was sit and sigh and stare at Cary!” She earned the rank of Pharmacist’s Mate 3rd class, and learned therapy to help servicemen re-train themselves to use wounded limbs. Willa was serving as a WAVE when she met a handsome, black-haired sailor, Jack Bunce, a gunner’s mate on a small plane – whose job it was to patrol the Atlantic looking for U-boats, and hope the sub didn’t see them first. Wartime is strange in many ways – “when else could a girl from Columbia, SC meet a boy from Clatskanie, Oregon?” They were married at the end of the war in 1945, and baby “Madge” joined the family in September of 1946.
But the culture gap between East and West proved too great. Willa and Jack were divorced in 1948, and Willa went home to the South, determined to re-start her teaching career and bring up her little girl with the help of her strong family. While living with her eldest sister Thelma in Spring Lake, NC, she met and married Bill Bean, a First Sergeant stationed at Fort Bragg. The family was complete when in 1956 baby “Billy” joined the family. (When he was learning to talk little Billy couldn’t pronounce his big sister’s name, “Madge,” so he started to call her “Magpie,” and later, “Maggie.” Boy, did that name stick!) Willa and Bill and Maggie and Billy spent two years in France in the 1950s – stationed at the Army base at Toul, near Nancy. “What an adventure!”
When they came home from overseas in the late ‘50’s, they were joined by Sylvia Jo, Bill’s teenage daughter by a first marriage. Sylvia married her high school sweetheart Kenneth Hobson and provided the family with grandchildren – Kenny, Wendy, and Ronnie, who in turn have produced great-grandchildren Amanda, Brian, and Rebecca, and great-great grandchildren Natalie Jo, Kaleb, Kaelyn, and Kenzie. It was a telling facet of her character that she was greatly loved by her stepdaughter. Sylvia once said, “I know in the stories your stepmother is supposed to be mean to you, but Willa is wonderful!” Sylvia and her children and grandchildren have always been a loving part of Willa’s family, even after Sylvia’s untimely death in 2008. Maggie and Billy have never married, but Maggie followed her mother’s example by becoming a teacher. Billy gave up his job at the newspaper to become his mother’s full-time caregiver, a task which he lovingly performed until the day of her death.
Willa taught grade school in Columbus, Georgia, where the family was stationed at Fort Benning, in the early 60’s, and then second grade at Lillian Black Elementary in Spring Lake when Bill retired and the family moved to Fayetteville in 1969. Altogether her teaching career spanned more than 30 years! She and her sister Sarah lived within three blocks of one another for 20 years, and her sister Pat lived just 11 miles away. Her love and joy in her sisters, her brothers, and their children was unmatched, and she and Sarah loved to jump in the car and travel to “another wedding,” as the children and grandchildren grew up and married.
But her husband, her brothers, and then her sisters passed away. And so Willa moved into her children’s home in Raleigh in 2003 when Maggie and Billy threatened her with “the Old Folks Home” if she didn’t, and she lived there happily with her two children and a houseful of pets, including her beloved “Pugsy,” who was her little companion dog until she died. She was a quiet woman who loved animals, children, her family, and Jesus (not in that order!). She was a member of Spring Lake’s First Presbyterian Church for over 20 years, and taught Sunday School there as long as she was able. When she moved to Raleigh in 2003, her first order of business was to find a church home, and she and Maggie joined Raleigh Moravian Church in 2005, where they found another loving family. She trusted until the last that she would meet her beloved mother and brothers and sisters in heaven, and that she would rest joyfully in the arms of her Savior for all eternity. She was greatly loved. She is greatly missed.
She had the happy gift of making all who knew her love her, and she was a beloved “Aunt Willa” to a host of nieces and nephews. As a member of the “Great Generation” she worked hard all of her life – it never occurred to her to do otherwise – and served faithfully her country and her family and friends. She was anchor and loving friend to her son, daughter, and stepdaughter all her life. Home was where she was. Willa Bean passed away peacefully in her sleep last Thursday night, surrounded by her loving family, and Pugsy, as always, beside her on her bed.
Willa Walker Bean will be joined by her family and friends for a last good-bye at the Jernigan-Warren Funeral Home, 545 Ramsey Street in Fayetteville, on Monday, July 8, from 7PM to 9PM. The funeral will be held at the First Presbyterian Church, 101 Spring Avenue, Spring Lake, at 11AM on Tuesday, July 9. The Moravian Burial Service will be conducted by the Rev. Dr. Craig Troutman of Raleigh Moravian Church. Following the service, burial will be in the Veteran’s Cemetery, LaFayette Memorial Park, Fayetteville, with military honors.