Mother, model, wife of civil rights icon and so much more
While it can be difficult to measure the impact one person’s life has, the results can be easily seen. During Black History Month, The Examiner would like to honor members of the community who have had a palpable and positive impact. Pat Willard is one of those people. Willard started her career as a teacher and has since retired, but she continues to educate and motivate through her work with the Julie Rogers “Gift of Life” Program and other endeavors.
Willard was born in Chicago to parents Della and Earl Green. Her father worked in his family business making and distributing shoe polish, and her mother worked for the state of Illinois in the unemployment compensation division. After her parents divorced, she said her mother raised her and two siblings alone. After graduating high school, Willard went on to the University of Wisconsin. She later transferred to Fisk. While in college, Willard met someone special, her future husband Elmo Willard.
In the late 1950s, Pat was studying to get a Liberal Arts degree at Fisk University in Tennessee, and Elmo was a law student. She said their courtship lasted two to three years.
“Then we decided we couldn’t live without each other,” she said.
After they were married, Elmo was off to Howard University in Washington, D.C. to continue his studies. Back at home, Pat was pregnant with their first son, Michael. Pat chose to put college on hold and stayed with her family in Chicago while she and Elmo were apart. She gave birth there and then moved to D.C. to join her husband.
“He continued in law school and I got a job as a receptionist for a group of psychiatrists. We lived there for about three years while he finished law school. Then, his dad died in his senior year of law school. We had planned to live in D.C., but then when his father died he felt like he should come back here because the family owned a funeral home, Willard & Willard Funeral Home. He felt he should come back here and try to run the funeral home and be a lawyer. Well, that didn’t work too well, so after a couple of years, he sold the funeral home. He entered the law practice, which is really what he wanted to do. He became a civil rights lawyer, and he and his law partner, Theodore Johns, made all kinds of differences in terms of desegregating all of the public facilities here in Beaumont. … There is a library here named after my husband … and a bronze bust out in front of the courthouse of my husband and his law partner. It’s about two years old.”
Pat said her husband Elmo championed equal rights in Beaumont, but he was not a hero in the kitchen.
“The only thing he could cook was navy bean soup,” she said jovially.
Pat said after her husband and his partner helped desegregate Lamar State College, now Lamar University, she was able to attend classes there and completed her degree. She said she was one of the first black students to attend Lamar and the only one to graduate with her class. She said some of her fellow students were none too pleased to have someone of her race attending school with them.
“I was at Lamar for a couple of years,” she remembered. “I was on the Dean’s List the whole time I was there. There were some really not nice experiences. The professors were fine, but the students were not nice. And to make it worse, for me, I was pregnant with my second child. My skin color was not going to let me blend in and then also being pregnant was not going to allow me to blend in. It was a difficult time.
“I remember that during that particular time, there were riots and confusion with the whole situation. At the time, we lived in an apartment on Washington Boulevard. It was a very nice apartment. The owner of the apartment lived right next door in a beautiful two story white house, very well kept. One night, the Ku Klux Klan came along and burned a cross. They thought they were burning it in front of where we lived, but they were actually burning it in front of the owner’s house. The two structures were similar. Of course, that really scared me and scared my husband too. Then, I had two small children. So the next night, we felt they would come back and maybe do more than just burn a cross. … He had a shotgun and he was going to sit at the window and wait to see if the Ku Klux Klan people returned. He wanted us to go out to his aunt’s to spend the night, but I took the kids out there and went back. I thought I should be there with my husband. We sat there all night long in front of the window waiting on the Ku Klux Klan to come back. They did not, but that was a scary, unreal time. It is just unbelievable now.”
After completing her degree at Lamar, she started teaching English, a career that would span 37 years.
“I taught honors English at the high school,” Willard said. “I started out at Hebert High School and after desegregation came, I was moved to Forest Park. Then, Forest Park and Hebert merged and became West Brook. I taught at all three locations, and taught honors English the whole time.”
In 1968, Willard was spending time in Chicago. During that time, she said she marched with the legendary Martin Luther King Jr. during the “Poor People’s Campaign” prior to his assassination later that year.
“I had my kids with me,” she said of the event. “It was really interesting. There was a spirit of camaraderie. I remember my younger son was small and got tired of walking. Some man came by and put him on his shoulders so he could see.”
Willard always strove to do as much as she could in life and although teaching was a fulfilling career, she knew she had more to offer. At the age of 40, Willard started modeling.
“It all started one day in Houston. I was walking in the door of Foley’s and a lady came up to me and said, ‘I saw you last night in the Ebony fashion fair.’ Ebony magazine was started many years ago in Chicago and has grown to be quite successful. They had traveling fashion shows across the United States and some parts of Europe. They had beautiful fashions and beautiful models to go along with it. When this lady said that, I said, ‘No, you didn’t see me. I was not in that.’ And she argued with me. She said she was sure it was me. I said, ‘No, ma’am.’ She said, ‘Well, if you weren’t in it, you should be. You should be a model.’ On a whim, I decided not to go into Foley’s. I went across the street to Sakowitz and found the fashion coordinator. I went up to her office and I said, ‘I would like to see about modeling.’ She looked at me and said, ‘Have you ever modeled before?’ I said, ‘No.’ She said, ‘Do you have any experience?’ And I said, ‘No.’ And she, surprisingly, said, ‘Good.’”
The fashion coordinator said she was looking for someone warm and not stilted from being in the industry too long. Willard modeled for Sakowitz, Neiman-Marcus and Joske’s over the next four years. During her modeling stint with Joske’s, Willard said she was invited to participate in a fashion show at The Beaumont County Club. At the time, racial tensions were high and staff at the club were reluctant to have the two black models who worked with Joske’s at the fashion show.
“I was one of the first two black models there at the time,” Willard said. “Joske’s at the time did not have a store in Beaumont. They wanted to open a store and Beaumont wanted them to open a store here with the fanfare of a fashion show at the Beaumont Country Club. The club said definitely. Then, they found out there were going to be two black models and said no. They said they wanted the show but not the black models. Joske’s told them, ‘You don’t tell us what to do. If you want the show, you take what you get.’”
She was told to meet the Joske’s crew at the country club. She was nervous, but she performed. She said after the show they were served lunch. The area where they were having lunch faced the golf course. She said she could see the golfers, and they could see her, from her table. Apparently to her, the waiter did not want the golfers to see a person of color eating at the club.
“The waiter who was waiting on us at lunch went over and closed the drapes,” she said. “We saw one of he models, a male model. He knew exactly why the drapes were being closed. He just got up and said, ‘Uh-uh. We are going to have sunlight in here today.’ And he opened the drapes. They didn’t go back and touch them again.”
Willard said that although it seems like a different lifetime, it was not that long ago, sometime between 1970 and 1974. She said she and her husband were both committed to the cause of desegregation in Beaumont and the surrounding area.
“I feel like I helped with the desegregation movement along with my husband. He ran for city council twice and lost, but I helped with both campaigns, going from door to door.
“In my own right, I’ve been about educating. I’ve educated people on different levels, starting with youth and continuing today with the ‘Gift of Life’ because I am still educating on a different level and with a different kind of message.”
During her days as an English teacher, she received recognition as Outstanding Teacher of the Year at Forest Park High School in 1975 and Outstanding PTA Teacher of the Year at West Brook High School in 1986 and 1991. She was nominated for Outstanding Teacher in 1985 and in 1983 she was a nominee in the Outstanding National Teacher competition.
Willard was vice president of the Southeast Texas Arts Council from 1996 to 2000 and served on the Historical Landmark Commission Board from 1984 to 1987. She dedicated 12 years to the Art Museum of Southeast Texas as a board trustee. She was one of three organizers of the Golden Triangle Chapter of The Links Inc., an international, not-for-profit corporation consisting of 12,000 professional women of color in 276 chapters in 41 states. Several years ago, she was named “Best Dressed” by the Junior Forum of Beaumont. Willard currently serves on the Advisory Board for St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in addition to her job as the Education Outreach Coordinator with the “Gift of Life.”
“I’ve been working with Gift of Life for fourteen years now. It was shortly after I retired from teaching … during the summer, I was on the board of the Southeast Texas Arts Council and I was getting out of my car downtown going to a meeting at their office. (Regina Rogers) was parking behind and got out of her car. We spoke and said, ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ Then, she said to me, ‘What are you doing these days?’ And I said, with a big smile on my face, ‘Nothing,’ because I had just retired three months before. She said, ‘I have the perfect job for you.’”
At the time, Willard said she was not interested, but Rogers was persistent.
“It was August, and it was about 100 degrees in the middle of the day. So, I just said OK because I was so hot I thought if I didn’t get out of the street I would pass out,” Willard laughed. “There’s no denying her. When she puts her mind to something, she’s going to get it.”
As the Education Outreach coordinator with the Gift of Life, Willard grew the outreach program from four to five school programs per year to 98 outreach endeavors in 2012.
“No one had much heard of the ‘Gift of Life’ when I started,” Willard said.
She reached out to churches, local groups and schools to get people involved and educate them regarding breast cancer, prostate cancer, testicular cancer and the negative effects of smoking. She said she sets up programs at local schools and registered nurses talk to students about those issues.
“Remember the old TV show ‘Have Gun, Will Travel?’ Well, we have a message, will travel,” Willard said of the Gift of Life and her mission.
“Gift of Life” Public Affairs coordinator Norma Sampson said the organization for whom they both work would not have the exposure and reach it has today without Willard’s help.
“Pat Willard is an amazing woman and an elegant person,” Sampson said. “She is involved in education outreach here. She and her husband were both involved in so much community outreach. She was a wonderful teacher and continues to educate the community.”
Willard said she started teaching with her sons, Michael and David. Her son Michael died suddenly about eight years ago. Her son David and his wife Kim are living in the old Willard family home and renovated the house, which she say has a lot of history. She is very proud of David, who is close to completing his dissertation at Harvard University, and feels that his success could be attributed to hard work and education, results of the motivational upbringing she gave him. Willard said she has lived a blessed life.
“I’ve been fortunate. My life thus far has been about trying to help others realize their potential, from my own children to anyone who would listen. I feel really lucky to be able to continue educating, even though it is on a different level. I am still educating. I am still trying to help people achieve and maximize their potential.”
And she does not intend to stop anytime soon.